After a recent video surfaced showing a schoolkid traumatised by parent-sanctioned punishment, we ask…can third party punishment ever be justified?
This is a hard video to watch. A five-year-old boy is screaming with absolute fear in his voice. He’s about to get hit hard for misbehaving. I bet he’s not even marrying his behaviour to this punishment. The fact is that corporal punishment in school doesn’t work and in Australia, it’s something we’ve largely accepted. In the United States, however, it is legal for a child to get hit with a paddle if the parent consents.
Does this horrible tableau rule all third party punishment ineligible?
As adults, we all live by third party punishment: some high authority that threatens you to keep you in line. If you don’t return that DVD, you’re going to cop a fine. You run a red light, you lose your licence. Smuggle drugs and you’ll go to jail.
Kids are an adult’s responsibility, but they’re also subject to third party punishment through adults. Third party punishment of your child can be legitimate, pending on the definition and the strategies in place. They have to be strategies that have been vetted by professionals like child psychologists, educators, parents, medical staff and/or human rights legislators.
The point of having multiple “professions” vetting these strategies is to keep each other in check. If teachers think paddling is okay (let’s not ignore that the teachers call it paddling – somehow it doesn’t sound as harsh as “getting the cane” and being spanked doesn’t sound as harsh as hitting, but it’s exactly the same thing), then a child psychologist will say “Hey these strategies don’t work for a number of reasons!” That keeps everyone honest.
The logical rope, when tied to the situation in the video, makes the irony breathtaking.
The teachers are punishing this child for spitting and fighting by hitting him. That’s not a lesson, that’s a power trip. Punishment as a technique is out, discipline is the key. Punishment is purely transactional – it’s given to those who have done something wrong. Discipline, however, goes one step further and teaches a child how to behave, even if it is born out of something they have done wrong. I’m the first person to say that children need to be held accountable for their actions, but this boy is five years old; surely his fear is enough punishment.
Remember when you were a kid and you mucked up your mother always threatened you with “Wait until your father gets home?” Nobody remembers what the punishment was, but I bet everyone remembers that feeling of dread and fear in the waiting. That’s what’s happening to this child. The fear of getting the paddle is so great he’s about to choke on his own tears as he speaks. Fear is a punishment, not a teaching moment.
What is probably the most distressing in this video is the mother’s recording of the punishment. I mean firstly, why? Secondly, you don’t need to be a professional psychologist to know that the mother looking on and doing nothing is causing the real psychological damage here. The person that this five-year-old boy instinctively trusts the most just left him high and dry. Five-year-olds don’t have the mental acumen to analyse and unpack what just happened. This kid is in a fight or flight, highly charged state of emotion. It’s hardly surprising when the mother says he gets scared every time she goes near him.
So exactly who should be allowed to discipline children?
For me, whenever my children go to school I know, and they know, they are at the mercy of their teachers and their school rules. Screw up and they’re going to get in trouble. It’s an unwritten law to which all parents subscribe, but it has to be within reason.
In this case, the mother claims that she was threatened by the teaching staff to agree to the paddling otherwise she’d end up in jail. If this is true, then that’s power trip number two on behalf of the teachers. The mother should have packed up right then and there and got the hell out of dodge.
To conclude, the answer is yes, with a but. While punishment of your children is subjective, the environment matters. If you live in a place where violence against children is allowed, then that little voice inside you that says “This isn’t right,” is replaced by those deemed trustworthy by label, not merit.