By Rabia Mehta:
A popular saying goes, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Those of us that belong to an older generation are probably quite familiar with the concept of spanking, having been subjected to it at some point in our youths. We may each have anecdotes of the times in our childhood when we were spanked by our parents for doing something wrong. When a child seems out of control, what is the parent supposed to do? Is slapping, caning, or spanking really the answer? And if so, does it provide an effective solution to a child’s misbehaviour? What are the long-term consequences of physical disciplinary action? Should schools be allowed to hit your child? These are just a few of the questions regarding punishment raised in the course of modern parenting.
Corporal punishment in general means any form of physical punishment in a domestic, educational, or judicial setting. In parenting, it involves inflicting some form of physical force (such as slapping, spanking, or caning) in order to control or punish a child’s misbehaviour. It is still widely used as a parenting tool in some cultures, including our own. Although countries like New Zealand, the Netherlands, and Germany have outlawed any form of corporal punishment, it is still legal at home in many others, including the United States and Australia. In Singapore, judicial corporal punishment in the form of caning is used on males to punish petty crimes.
Indian law does not make it illegal to spank one’s own child, but neither does it say that physical punishment is perfectly legal and acceptable. Section 89 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, states that –
“Nothing which is done in good faith for the benefit of a person under twelve years of age, or of unsound mind by or by consent, either express or implied, of the guardian or other person having lawful charge of that person, is an offence by reason of any harm which it may cause, or be intended by the doer to cause or be known by the doer to be likely to cause to that person…” provided that the intention is not to cause death or grievous hurt, or used in the abetment of any other offence.
It is important to note that while Section 89 of the IPC (1860) makes some form of domestic corporal punishment “allowable”, it does not advocate or advise its use. Such punishment, however, has been made illegal in educational settings. Article 17 of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009, enforced in 2010) prohibits the physical or mental harassment of any child between the ages of 6 and 14 and punishes offenders that engage in any such acts in an educational setting. In some states like Goa and Andhra Pradesh, all children regardless of age are legally protected against school corporal punishment.
So even if it is legal to spank one’s own child, where does one draw the line between disciplinary action and assault or abuse? It seems to be a judgment call that is defined more by societal norms and culture than by law. Many parents use it as a last resort when all else fails; some use it as a way to keep a child “in line” by instilling constant fear. Still others see it as the only way to get their child to do well in school. Public attitude regarding spanking has changed in the past few decades. In Western ideology, spanking is generally not acceptable, especially in public, a concept that is catching on in the rest of the world.
Experts remain divided on the subject, although studies seem to suggest that mild, reproachful, open-handed spanking is effective in the short term to increase a child’s compliance to parental rules, and that an authoritarian (as opposed to an authoritative) style of parenting does not have long term detrimental effects. The studies caution, however, that the research methodology on such a controversial issue may be skewed by a high amount of ‘social desirability bias’, wherein the subjects in a study may respond in a socially acceptable or politically correct way, keeping in mind any real or perceived consequences of their responses. Yet other studies suggest that spanking deteriorates the trust between a parent and a child, and may lead to undesirable behaviour or violence later in the child’s life. It is also argued that most child abuse starts with spanking.
Spanking may indeed have negative long term effects on a child. Children that are excessively afraid of their parents are known to be shyer and more insecure than their peers. They may exhibit physical aggression towards others, since they themselves are subject to varying forms of it from a person that is supposed to be their role model. Physical aggression becomes the primary way to solve a problem, which can have grave consequences later on in life. It leads to bitterness and resentment, not just towards the parent, but within other relationships as well. Relationships should not be based on fear and aggression. Above it all, children model their behaviour on the people that are closest to them. Children that are spanked are more likely to spank their own children in the future, thus perpetuating the cycle of extreme authoritarianism.
It is up to your judgment whether or not to spank your child, but it is important to keep in mind the consequences of your actions, where to draw the line, and what is permissible by law. In an age when children seem to grow up faster than ever before, it is important to realize that a child has the right to a full and a happy childhood experience. Everyone has a memory or two of being negatively disciplined at some point in their youths. It just shouldn’t become the only memory a child carries forth into adulthood.
Rabia Mehta was born in Bombay but raised in the US. She studied Industrial/Organizational Psychology but she plans on pursuing a second career in the near future. An avid reader, she currently dabbles with writing and editing, and devotes her spare time to her beloved pets. She calls the San Francisco Bay Area home but travels to Asia frequently. The article was previously published at Indian Law Radar.