This is my take on the caning issue. I wrote this some time back in response to another column by a writer who advocated the use of caning based on her experience with her six children, but I think it is just as valid today. I am a mother of two children and have never used any instrument on my children. There was the odd smack when I was unable to think straight, but I am not proud of it.
As a parent myself, I find that I am unable to agree with the view that caning is beneficial in the discipline of children. I see no good example being set by a parent who would use his/her greater physical strength against someone of lesser size. All that the child is likely to learn in this situation is that it is acceptable to hit someone else if you do not agree with them, and that the only condition you have to adhere to is that there is distinct disequilibrium favoring you in size. Children who are hit by their parents tend to go out and hit other people. It’s as simple as that.
It is often stated by people who support the caning of innocents that this form of punishment, when carried out in a calm and measured manner, sends children the very clear message that there are consequences for any transgression and these will be meted out with consistency by parents who take the time to explain to their children why they are going to be attacked.
The reality of the situation is very different. There is something eerie about a parent approaching the child calmly with an instrument of torture in his/her hand and informing the child that he/she is about to receive six of the best because “we love you enough to punish you when you do wrong”. Because this is really what a parent who canes his/her child is saying- “I cannot conceive of any other more intelligent way of dealing with the situation. This is my admission of failure as a parent”. No matter how calmly the parent approaches the situation, the cane in the hand belies any evidence of rational thought.
Some proponents of caning turn the debate into one that argues the necessity of discipline, allowing them to take the high ground of those who would rather see their children grow up into responsible citizens than hooligans who run wild. The removal of this smokescreen is necessary for us to see that everyone believes discipline is important. The question is how? How do we show children that there are consequences for bad behavior? The answer lies not in whacking kids senseless after they have failed to adhere to our standards of behavior, but in setting them up for success by clearly modeling the type of responses we expect from them.
This is where parents need to see the difference between proactive and reactive discipline. The former involves guiding children into behaving well so that the situation does not arise where you need to physically reprimand them in the first place. Will they then never do wrong? Of course not. But this type of discipline involves so much communication between parent and child that one glance from the parent is enough to signal to the child that he/she is straying from the path. Proactive parents work hard to keep channels of communication with their children open so that there are never any hidden agendas. At all times, each knows how the other is feeling, and it is a relationship based on trust.
Reactive discipline is certainly easier, but nowhere near as effective. Proponents of this type of discipline are those who believe that quality time makes up for a lack of quantity. So distant do they become from their children that the first signal they get that something is wrong is when their children misbehave. Out comes the cane, marking the beginning of a session that treats the symptom, while completely ignoring the cause. Very often, perpetrators of this type of violence manage to convince their children that it is for their own good that they are undergoing the punishment. This is exactly how abusers bring their victims under control.
In my experience most children do have a desire to please the authority figures in their lives. Children whose parents put effort into disciplining them proactively often fear, more than anything else, that behaving badly will disappoint their parents or teachers. Many of those who are used to getting caned tend to respond only when caning is threatened. After a while even this threat does not work, and parents have to keep raising the bar.
There is no shortcut to good parenting. It takes time, love, compassion and understanding. It must start from birth. If this aspect is ignored then by the time parents feel there is no way to discipline their children other than by using a cane, it will in all likelihood be too late anyway. A mother of six once wrote an article in this paper in which she likened caning a six-year-old who tells a lie to smacking the hand of a baby who touches an electrical cord. It is very different, for the simple reason that the six-year- old is perfectly able to understand other forms of discipline (the baby can also be gently diverted from the electrical cord, and be presented with less dangerous and more engaging stimuli). I’d like to recommend that people only have the number of children that they can deal with intelligently- you should not have to whack them up because you don’t have the time to get to know each one well.