“Those who merely study and treat the effects of disease are like those who imagine that they can drive away the winter by brushing the snow from the door. It is not the snow that causes winter, but the winter that causes the snow.”
Paracelsus (Philipus Aurelius Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim) 1493-1541
Came across a vox-pop ‘Have Your Say’ debate on the BBC News website last weekend discussing the proposals for legislation to ban smacking of children in Britain. The number of responses opposing any such move outweighed those in favour by a considerable margin.
There were two main threads running through the objections. The first was that this shouldn’t be a matter for government legislation, and that to criminalise an action of itself without considering motive and circumstances is the wrong thing to do, and is potentially open to considerable abuse. The second was that there was nothing wrong with corporal punishment administered lovingly for the child’s benefit to teach them discipline and respect, to which the respondent often added “it never did me any harm”. Many opinions laid the blame for the country’s present problems with unruly youth on liberal parenting, single-parent families, etc. Many felt smacking was entirely justified and the only means available to prevent children from injuring themselves at ages before reason is an option.
Those against put equally cogent arguments against the barbaric nature of corporal punishment, especially meted out to children, and felt strongly that something needed to be done about it. Several ex-pats wrote in to say that the nation’s treatment of children was one of the reasons they no longer live in Britain.
This debate has been going on a long time within the context of Europe-wide legislation and seems nowhere nearer a solution. It inspires strong feelings and a lot of comment – a sure sign of something deep demanding attention. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Perhaps everyone has a valid point and that by putting them all together we can get an idea of what really needs to be addressed here.
While there’s a sense that there are times when a smack can be appropiate (and we make far too big a deal about physical assault without taking into account its mental equivalent), the occasions when there genuinely is no other choice available are likely much rarer than we imagine. Often we smack because it’s so ingrained in our society as an appropriate response we don’t think beyond it. No matter how loving the parent thinks they’re being, the child’s understanding and feelings about a situation is often entirely different.
Take for example the case of a child smacked for persisting in trying to play with an electrical socket. Children will often investigate dangerous things because adults have drawn attention to them and infused them with a thrilling quality. Any attempt to dissuade the child simply has the effect of reinforcing the special status of the object so the child is ultimately punished for paying attention to what was being drawn to their attention in the first place. Very young children don’t understand abstract concepts and indirect references, so a young child smacked for playing with an electrical socket doesn’t learn that the socket is dangerous, since the socket didn’t harm him. He learns that his parent or caregiver is dangerous.
Yet smacking seems in some ways the least of our worries. It’s just a symptom, and one of many. It’s the culture that gives rise to it and perpetuates it that’s the seat of the problem, and legislation to ban smacking won’t change that one whit. No more than perpetually treating symptoms addresses the cause of a physical illness.
Although by no means unique to Britain, violence and intimidation have been hallmarks of British culture for centuries. It’s how the British Empire was built. It’s a culture that tends to think it’s always in the right and has the god-given right to impose its way of life on other nations that it regards as inferior, which is frequently a high-minded gloss put on basic exploitation. These attitudes also find their expression in our everyday lives amongst ordinary, decent people and loving parents, although perhaps less obviously. Inadvertently we endorse its persistence because accepting that it’s “good” for us (with a stiff upper lip) is one of the few ways to come to terms with our own childhood experiences.
The fact that Britain is one of the most child-unfriendly nations on the planet speaks volumes about how we value our children. Children instilled with a deep sense of worthlessness grow into adults who can only try to redress that feeling in whatever way they can, often by repeating the same patterns with workmates, subordinates, or with their own partners and children. And most often, without being in the least aware of what it is they’re doing.
“Abuse no one and no living thing, For abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.”
We learn by example. Children especially so, since they haven’t yet learned to swallow the “do as I say not as I do” dictate. The use of violence and intimidation to enforce “discipline” and “respect” only teach that the use of violence and intimidation is an acceptable means of enforcing your opinion on someone else. How does a child learn the meaning of respect if they have little idea what it feels like to have their own thoughts and feelings respected? All that’s learned in such a situation is that respect means always having to defer to someone else’s opinions or feelings or that of some mythical societal consensus. And those parents that recognise and try to address this within their own homes are then up against an education system and a wider society where more traditional attitudes frequently prevail. Teachers who feel aggrieved at the lack of respect they receive from pupils should perhaps consider that they may be looking in the mirror. If they have no respect for themselves or for the children they teach, then how can they expect the children to reflect anything else back to them?
Genuine respect is something that’s earned by being genuinely respectful to others. It’s not something that’s ours by right simply because of our age or position in society. (Children seem to understand this much better than adults.) As a culture, we are in thrall to our authority figures, either swallowing what they say hook, line and sinker no matter how ridiculous it might be, or busy setting ourselves up as authorities ourselves. We’ve been long and well drilled in marginalising our own instincts and opinions about situations in deference to the authoritative “expert” viewpoint. Yet we’re also ready to tear those same authorities apart at the least crack in the façade as inner resentment over such patent inequality erupts through the thin veneer of civilisation. No wonder that our teenagers are so ready to use violence and intimidation as they struggle with the transition to earning some respect for themselves. They’re not the ones to be singled out for being in the wrong – shooting the messengers never solved a problem yet.
To those that say “this didn’t happen in the old days!”, well indeed. And the reason it didn’t happen so much was that the degree of intimidation was generally much greater. In Victorian times, for instance, children were expected to be seen and not heard; their natural exhuberance and inquisitiveness silenced and their spirit squashed. And while subsequent generations have been less totalitarian, many of those attitudes still prevail. Which is why so many adults today accept authority without question and are so susceptible to the fear-mongering tactics of governments promoting an altogether different agenda to the one on their public face.
Personally, I don’t blame today’s teenagers for their lack of respect for the adult world. It’s so lacking in respect, what is there to respect? Liberalism hasn’t caused this. It’s simply allowed it to come to the surface and be seen for what it is. How can we set any kind of moral example to our kids when the US President and the British Prime Minister – the supposed pillars of our society – invade other countries on the basis of a monstrous lie? And we let them. How can children be expected not to bully their peers when they’re being so comprehensively bullied by adults? They’re not stupid, today’s kids. They see through that one and others like it far more readily than the older generations who have the party line embedded way too far down our throats. Their behaviour is a clear mirror to our society of all the ills we’ve kept firmly nailed under the carpet for generation upon generation. Complaining about the quality of the nails and demanding that they’re strengthened and lengthened isn’t the solution. This stuff shouldn’t be nailed under the carpet to begin with.
We need to learn to respect each other and value each other as fellow human beings, regardless of age or position or education or origin, and whether we agree with each others’ feelings and opinions or not. It’s the basic right of every individual to form and express their feelings and opinions, and diversity of opinion and perspective is healthy and leads to greater understanding. If that right is acknowledged from a fundamental state of agreeableness, then there is no need to fight for some superficial facsimile of agreement. Or to seek to impose opinions on others to redress the balance for what’s been denied. Or to try to silence feelings and opinions that speak of what lies in shadow. If nothing is repressed or denied, then nothing is condemned to compulsion and acting out. We are free to choose.
The American Constitution once enshrined a sense of a just and respectful society (before it became so systematically subverted and shredded as to become a mockery of itself). It was patterned on the form of government of Native American confederacies who knew how to live those principles and what it meant to live them. Which is why so many were so comprehensively massacred by the white man who’s thinly disguised barbaric nature, suppressed and denied behind the drapes of “civilisation”, only equipped him to act out in denial rather than take those principles to heart.
These values are not something that can be imposed, because the very act of imposition is in contravention of them. They can only come from a heart-felt respect for the rights of all, taught by example from the cradle or realised through learning the lessons of experience.
“Living an ethical life is not a case of adhering to a set of regulations imposed on us from outside, such as the laws of a country. Rather it involves voluntarily embracing a discipline on the basis of a clear recognition of its value. In essence, living a true ethical life is living a life of self-discipline. When the Buddha said that ‘we are our own master, we are our own enemy’, he was telling us that our destiny lies in our own hands.”
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama