To spank or not to spank – that is the question

To spank or not to spank – that is the question

In September this year, the Constitutional Court upheld a ruling by the High Court to do away with the common law defence of “reasonable chastisement” when spanking a child. Terence Pillay investigates.

Girl crying in a corner / iStock
Girl crying in a corner / iStock

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There has been a sharp focus on violence against women and children in the last few months and it has given rise to many initiatives to help spread awareness in an effort to kerb the scourge.

The whole issue came about after the conviction of a father for assaulting his 13-year-old son in Johannesburg. The father later argued, in his defence, that he was administering moderate and reasonable chastisement under common law.   

READ: Spare the rod: Alternative ways of disciplining your child without spanking

So after the Constitutional Court ruling, there has been mixed reactions from the public. People were tweeting nonsense like, “After the ruling, I kicked my daughter out and told her to go and live with the Constitutional Court", and “Maybe the Con Court will then raise South Africa’s kids.”

The landmark ruling was appealed by civil society group Freedom of Religion South Africa (For SA) which believed the judgment would make criminals of well-meaning parents. 

But let's go back a few steps; corporal punishment is illegal in schools, and now you can’t spank your kids at home either. And the issue was about what reasonable chastisement was. So there was a group of religious people, who presented themselves as friends at the court. They said that in terms of the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, you're allowed to chastise your child. But the Constitutional Court said that this was in contravention of the Child Protection Act. 

The constitution of the country guarantees the right to dignity. This religious group was arguing for the right to spank your child or as they put it, exercising the religious basis for reasonable chastisement. I read somewhere that they said that their freedom of religion was being infringed upon, but the court said that the rights of the child had a high priority. So the Constitutional Court handed down this ruling; you may not spank your child.

Obviously, there was a reaction because people said they need to be able to discipline their children. Of course children, nowadays, lack discipline anyway. If you look at all the beatings that happen in schools, and children attacking the teachers and the like, we realise that we have a huge problem on our hands.

And this has caused a huge push back. And what we have are people who are fighting for the rights to be able to hit their children. This begs the ponder; maybe the problem is not with the Constitution! But the problem is with you; you're desperate to have the right to smack a child. 

I personally don't think we should be smacking our children. But we should be positively training them. What is interesting about the definition of reasonable chastisement is that it includes not only the physical act of discipline, so smacking a child, but also the threat thereof. So if you say to a child, “I'm going to beat you if you do that one more time”, that in itself is something you can’t do either.

The experts say you need to say, “Go sit in the naughty corner; it's a time out until you sort yourself out.” A lot of people on social media were up in arms about it and said, “Oh well when I was a young person, I was spanked, we all used to get cuts at school we used to get hit by our parents when we were naughty. And I turned out alright.” But the thing is, you're arguing for the right to beat your children. Perhaps you should re-valuate whether you're actually fine. 

ALSO: Darren Maule shares his view on ConCourt's ruling against spanking children

Look at our country. Look at the generation upon generation upon generation of people that have been raised and the increasing violence against children and women. So where does one draw the distinction between disciplining your child and actual abuse? And how does one maintain a clear distinction between violence, abuse, and mild physical correction?

Health professionals talk about reinforcing positive behaviour. The idea that positive discipline is a bitter approach to raising children, and an environment that uses words is going to be better than beating children to sort things out. But on the flip side, how do you manage such a complex situation? I presume the courts spoke to psychologists and child behavioural specialists before making the ruling. Or was it a knee jerk reaction to all this gender-based violence against children? 

Many feel this is a middle-class concern, where you’re in a situation where you have the choice to put your child in the naughty corner, whereas if you're not really secure economically and are socially disadvantaged; your naughty corner is actually not part of your plan. In these cases, both the mother and father are not at home, and the kids are latchkey kids. And so what the parents do is because they work so hard, when they come home and confront bad behaviour it’s far easier to give them a spanking and send them to bed or whatever the case may be. There's no facility like the naughty corner.

So I think it is an idealistic thing to say that everybody's going to have this kind of really sophisticated view of parenting, a sophisticated view of child psychology or whatever the case may be. But I don't think that precludes any well-meaning purpose or not; obviously lots and lots of children who grew up in environments that were less than ideal still turned out okay with really wonderful parents who were positive role models and did a great job of raising them. 

Do you agree with the Constitutional Court ruling that outlaws the spanking of children? 

You can email Terence Pillay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @terencepillay1 and tweet him your thoughts.

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