Child Spanking: Discipline Or Abuse?


Children come into this world, very innocent and, perhaps, helpless, with a mind described by psychologists as tabula rasa

The society’s expectation is that these infants, over time, will be nurtured by their parents to grow into adulthood with cherished virtues of honesty, diligence, integrity and godliness.

In fact, all religions take child upbringing very seriously, believing that it is at such early stage of life that good character is molded in the child.

“Truly, our job as parents is to love, nurture and teach our kids about how to live a good life from infancy to adulthood,” says a mother, Mrs Bola Omolehin.

In the Holy Quran, for instance, Prophet Mohammed imposes an obligation on parents to nurture the child by imbibing in him or her sound moral virtues, knowledge of Allah, his Creator; while ensuring that for adulthood, he/she learns a trade that can sustain a decent living.

Similarly, the Holy Bible enjoins parents to “train up a child in the way he should grow, so that when he is old, he will not depart from it”.

Child upbringing, somehow, is an arduous task for which most parents receive the least training, whereas the society’s expectations of parents are very high.

Child development experts, as well as the scriptures, clearly underscore the imperative for discipline in the early life of a child.

“Through discipline, our children learn that some kinds of behaviour are acceptable, while others are not,’’ explains a child development expert.

Beyond question, therefore, the setting of “boundaries” for children’s behaviour helps them to learn how to behave in the wider society, especially as they are susceptible to a variety of behavioural and emotional problems.

Notwithstanding the imperative of discipline for the child, opinions differ on ways of enforcing discipline in the child.

While some believe in instant punishment for errant behaviours, others prefer the gentler approach of moderate mode of correction.

Yet another group thinks that a blend of both approaches is better.

Nevertheless, in the traditional African society, corporal punishment is an acceptable mode of correction for the child who is particularly stubborn.

“Spare the rod, spoil the child’’ is an aged-old saying that is always on the lips of most African elders. It is also scriptural.

“A quick spank can be a reminder to a child not to run into the street; not to steal or tell lies, not to play with electrical appliances or to go near a cooking stove.

“A small amount of pain saves one from incurring much greater and possibly fatal incidents,’’ says Mrs Zaina Ibrahim, a child analyst.

Often times, parents spank their children on account of perceived “wilful disobedience”, especially when such kids develop the kind of language and reasoning skills to understand danger.

These times, however, canning or spanking as a method of discipline seems to be generating controversy in certain quarters, especially among those who believe that it is out of tune with contemporary trends.

Ms Salma Ibrahim, a social welfare analyst, says she sees nothing wrong in the occasional caning of a disobedient child.

Salma , who resides in Atlanta, U.S., recalls that “I grew up in a home where my parents caned us kids as a corrective measure whenever we erred.

“People used to remark how obedient and well-mannered we were when they compared us with other kids of our age.’’

Salma insists that such a good reputation only came about because her parents did not spare the rod.

Mrs Nkechi Okoronkwo, an Abuja-based journalist, shares similar viewpoint, insisting that if a child does a wrong thing, such a child should be spanked.

“If you don’t punish the child, chances are that the errant behaviour will be repeated; the future consequences could be dire and could be to the detriment of the child, who will relate with the wider society,” she says.

Okoronkwo, however, advises that sometimes, there ought to be some moderation during discipline, so as to allow for counselling and advice, to achieve the same effect as canning.

“Child punishment should be as the circumstances demand but with some form of flexibility,” she insists.

Those opposed to corporal punishment say that there had been instances where such punishments were extreme and as such, constituted child abuse.

They note that the mass media are replete with stories of some parents and guardians who inflict severe wounds on their children and wards, all in the name of punishment.

For reasons as such extremities, Mrs Ngozi Thompson, a mother of three, says that moderation should be the underlying principle.

“Moderation is the key word; I think discipline is the main thing in bringing up a child. If spanking is what brings a child to order, so be it.

“If you don’t discipline your children, they will grow up to think that they can do anything and get away with it,’’ Ngozi argues.

Mrs Tina Brown, a lawyer, sees caning or spanking as a form of child abuse and insists that a child should not be caned for any reason.

“Spanking and caning is most certainly an abuse in my book. There are other ways to discipline a child other than caning. Caning never proves anything, be it to a child or an adult,’’ she adds.

What separates caning or spanking from child abuse, may appear to some people as a very thin line.

Mrs Nihimat Abdullahi, a child welfare expert, argues that caning or spanking as a form of discipline for a child is not an abuse, though she quickly warns against any form of extremity.

“Beating children black and blue, drawing blood, causing bruises and breaking bones, all clearly constitute abuses and they are repulsive,” she says.

Nihimat, nonetheless, explains that the spanking of children when they refuse to reason or obey instructions is conceptualised as “negative reinforcement”.

She advises parents to teach their children that “bad and unpleasant consequences follow bad behaviours or disobedience to constituted authority”.

“Instead of this all-or-nothing approach that people seem to take on these issues, a bit of moderation and proper application is what is needed.

“It is normal for parents to become impatient, frustrated and angry with errant children but anger does not mean that you should act ‘angrily’ towards your kids.

“Some children are hyperactive and pose greater challenges than others,’’ Nihimat expatiates, underscoring the need to adopt the appropriate discipline modes as the circumstances dictate.

Hajia Hauwa Sani, a childcare giver, on her part, says that a rule to remember in matters of discipline is “never to punish a child in the state of anger or emotion”.

She warns that in this state, emotions could becloud you, while proper reasoning may become impossible.

“You can easily lose control of yourself and when you do and misdirect your naked aggression towards a child, you are abusing the child. This goes for both verbal and physical reprimands. You will need to calm down completely.

“A situation of rage at the point of meting out discipline must be avoided,” Sani cautions, adding: “A terrible damage or harm can also be done and this can leave behind a life-long regret.

“It should be borne in mind at all times that beating should be the final resort that is adopted for rectifying a spoilt child,’’ she says.

Sani further advises that punishment should be carried out within reasonable and considerable limits, while specific spots should be identified for caning purposes.

“It is permissible to cane a child for the purposes of discipline, so long as the limits are not transgressed. If the limits are transgressed, even by a single stroke, such a disciplinarian will be regarded as an abuser’’.

“Punishment is never an avenue to vent meanness, aggression or frustration. Parents must know their limits and not go overboard,’’ Sani adds.

Child development experts, however, point out that there is variability in the amenability of children to corrections.

They say that while some children will just cease to do a bad thing by mere verbal caution, others will never change except they see a cane waiting for them.

“Spanking and caning varies from child to child as children are different. While some kids need spanking and caning, some do not. It all depends on individual sensitivity to correction,’’ Sani expatiates.

Narrating her personal experience as a child, Hauwa Mohammed, a civil servant, recalls that words like “hey, stop that” were enough to dissuade her from an errant behaviour whereas only a cane could stop her siblings from wrongdoing.

Mr Shola Adewunmi, a father of three, says that caning is very okay provided that the child is grown up sufficiently to appreciate the essence of punishment.

In an age where western values seem to displace old and cherished traditional values, especially in the African context, child discipline has assumed a strange dimension.

“In the good old days, child discipline was every adult’s business. If I saw a child exhibiting an errant behavior, I didn’t have to wait for the parents before disciplining such a child.

“Child discipline was everybody’s business and we all accepted it as a norm in our traditional societies,” says Mr Fidelis Igein, a septuagenarian grandfather.

A mother, Miss Anna Isiaku, says that an admixture of traditional and western values in matters of discipline should be adopted by parents.

“Let’s take the good sides of both cultures and adopt them. To label caning as an abuse is alien to African societies as far as I am concerned. I will always cane my children as our parents did to us but with some restraints however.’’

Isiaku’s argument is that most children tend to fear the cane more than verbal reprimand, stressing the need for parents and guardians to always draw the line between cruelty and discipline.

There had been instances where parents harassed or arrested their children’s teachers in schools for ever touching them with a cane, even when such spankings were light.

Okoronkwo says that such an attitude by parents is not right.

“There are milder ways to register genuine complaints with the school authorities rather than going to harass and arrest the teachers on account of the children’s misdemeanors,’’ she says.

Some child development analysts point out that it is increasingly difficult and almost impossible for parents in the Western world to effectively discipline their children, thus leading to more deviant behaviours among their youth.

In those countries, they note, caning or spanking of an errant child can land you in jail or even earn you a fine.

The legal rights of the child in the Western nations, some African conservatives insist, are largely responsible for some wayward behaviours of youths and adults in those lands.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a consensus that discipline is imperative for the Nigerian child but that moderation must be the key word, to ensure sanity in the society.


Koro-Mohammed writes for the News Agency of Nigeria.


Hauwa Koro-Mohammed