History was made today when the Constitutional Court found that the defence of reasonable chastisement is unconstitutional, and revoked it. This defence was part of our common law (i.e. not laid down in an Act of Parliament) and was open to parents who had been accused of assaulting their children.
The immediate effect of this finding is to prohibit corporal punishment in the home. Corporal punishment is already prohibited in the criminal justice system (as both a sentence and a punishment during incarceration), in the school and in alternate care.
Hitting people is wrong and children are people too. If it is wrong for an adult to hit another adult, or a child to hit another child, or a child to hit an adult, why on earth should it be OK that a parent can hit their child? Why is it that one child hurting another is called ‘bullying’, and one adult hurting another is called ‘abuse’, but somehow hitting children is called ‘discipline’? Is there not a deep illogicality in this?
And yet, many parents (and non-parents too) are going to be upset by this ruling.
They are going to argue that the state has no right to interfere in the private sphere. They are going to tell you that their religion instructs them to use the rod. They are going to claim there is no other way to raise decent, disciplined adults. They are going to say, “it’s my culture”. They are going to proclaim that they were beaten as children and it didn’t do them any harm. They are going to complain that parents are being criminalised for every little smack.
But the evidence says that they are wrong.
The state has not only the right, but the duty to intervene in the private sphere when not to do so would allow ongoing rights infringements. This is why we have legislation against domestic violence.
It is arguable that the use of ‘rod’ in Proverbs (where there are many references to rods and chastisement) is a misinterpretation of ‘shebet’ in the original Hebrew. The shebet was the hooked staff carried by the King as he walked in front of his people, and by shepherds, who used it to rescue sheep and goats stuck in awkward places. The meaning of ‘shebet’ is of a rod for guidance and protection, not punishment. This interpretation can be seen in the Psalm that speaks of “they rod and thy staff (that) comfort me”.
The research evidence is clear that corporal punishment does not teach self-discipline. The only positive outcome of corporal punishment has been shown to be immediate compliance. Children in fact learn the wrong lessons when we hit them. They learn that it is acceptable for bigger, stronger people to hurt smaller, weaker ones.
Evidence from pre-slavery, pre-missionary and pre-colonialism days indicate that hitting children was not an intrinsic part of African cultures; indeed, the evidence suggests that corporal punishment of children was brought to Africa by the slave trade, by missionaries and by the colonisers.
The evidence also shows that exposure to corporal punishment in childhood does great harm: it gives rise to numerous negative outcomes for many, many people. These include increased levels of aggression in childhood and adulthood, increased propensity for boys to grow into men who use violence against their spouse and children, increased depression in childhood and adulthood, decreased ability to live a productive, self-sustaining and reasonably happy life—the list is long. Corporal punishment also has demonstrably negative impacts on cognitive development and intelligence.
In particular, the link between corporal punishment in childhood and adult perpetration of domestic violence and intimate femicide is resoundingly confirmed by evidence from rigorous scientific research.
And the criminalisation of parents is a very unlikely result, bearing in mind that most children do not report even the most egregious harm perpetrated against them. In any event, incarcerating their parents is seldom in children’s best interests.
The fact is that there is no evidence that hitting them is good for children, and it has been well-established that children learn less from what we tell them about how they should behave than from from seeing us as adults actually behaving as responsible, self-disciplined people.
Violence begets violence. Violence is damaging in the long-term. In the short-term, violence (even mild forms) does not teach self-discipline, except that it does improve short-term immediate compliance. This may feel useful in the moment but is short-sighted in a long-term view.
The finding by the Constitutional Court sets the basis and creates opportunities to educate and inform parents on more appropriate strategies to discipline children without resorting to violence. In so doing, it creates the opportunity to move towards a society that is less violent and more caring of everyone in it.