We all have a moment in our lives when we hark back to the way things were. The past always seems simpler somehow.
For Kevin Donnelly, the head of the government’s national curriculum review, that moment came on Tuesday when he reminisced about how corporal punishment was used in schools. He felt it was an “effective” deterrent then and believed it has a place in our schools today. “If the school community is in favour of it then I have got no problem if it’s done properly,” he said.
Of course there is a reason why many things that were done in the past are no longer done. Things like marital rape and capital punishment were all once legal until society deemed these things to be unacceptable and the law followed suit. The beating of children, however, remains a contentious issue.
What is the legal situation?
It is still legal for parents to beat their children with “reasonable” force. Only in NSW are there any restrictions to how you can beat them – for example, you can’t hit their head or neck in a way that creates an injury that lasts for more than “a short period”.
The thinking that children are born naturally unruly and need to be “corrected” has historical roots. For example, during the Victorian-era in England it was believed that children were little more than savages who needed to have their behaviour corrected through harsh discipline.
Such thinking has passed down the generations and continues to this day. Many believe that parents have every right to hit their children in order to discipline them, and the law agrees. However, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), when it comes to schools, the law in almost every state has outlawed the use of corporal punishment. It seems that we are okay with parents hitting our kids but not our educators.
I believe this is because we think most parents won’t cross the line from discipline into physical abuse, whereas educators, who have no connection to the child they are disciplining, will. Such thinking of course is deeply flawed, but as a society we feel the less the government interferes in a family’s private life, the better. And as such, we have to abide by society’s consensus. Are educators, however, capable of crossing the line into physical abuse?
The stories of abuse that have come out since Mr Donnelly’s comments are testament to what life was like for a number of children when corporal punishment was still legal in our schools. Both in social media and the letters’ pages of our national newspapers people have been telling their stories of physical abuse at the hands of their teachers. The ABC journalist Mark Colvin tweeted:
Teachers beat me, often, savagely & brutally (blood flowed) when I was 7-8. Gives me a sceptical perspective on this: http://t.co/rkGigv0wmy
— Mark Colvin (@Colvinius) July 15, 2014
Many responded with similar tales of abuse.
Does corporal punishment ‘work’?
The question remains, is corporal punishment “effective” as Mr Donnelly claims? Science says no. There is much research to suggest that physical punishment leads to negative consequences including “disruptive and anti-social behaviour; poor academic achievement … and mental health problems,” according to the AIFS.
A number of educators around Australia have also come out to say that in their experience corporal punishment is ineffective, and according to Lila Mularczyk, the president of the NSW Secondary Principals Council, is a “deplorable alternative.”
Even the PE teacher that Mr Donnelly remembered as meting out “effective” physical punishment to him and others as students now says he never punched anyone and is himself now opposed to corporal punishment.
For most of us, beating children into submission, or discipline as some like to call it, is an antiquated concept that does not need to be reintroduced into society.
While legally parents are still allowed to hit their children, as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t mean that this is in any way acceptable. As for teachers, suspension and time outs seem to be working and are seen as far better forms of discipline.
Our children learn about the world through their parents and teachers. They should be encouraged to talk about their actions rather than be beaten into silence. And most of all we need to show them through our own actions that violence is not the answer – because it is ultimately violence that is at the root of many of our society’s ills.
Saman Shad is a Sydney-based freelance writer, playwright and storyteller. She has two kids and tweets at @muminprogress