The Parliamentary Special Select Committee tasked with undertaking consultations on the abolishment of the death penalty and corporal punishment, and with decriminalising of lesbian, gay and transgender behaviours, has begun work on its agenda. It has begun its work in what it probably thought was the least contentious area: advertisements have appeared asking for submissions to ascertain, “the attitude of Guyanese, especially parents and children, to corporal punishment and its possible abolition”.
As one who (yes, yes) was once a child exposed to corporal punishment in schools during the fifties and sixties when ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ was the guiding mantra, I have some thoughts on the matter. As a parent of two sets of children – one in the States and one here – that also gave me a perspective that I can share.
I attended the Uitvlugt Church of Scotland School when it was still a ‘church’ school. Whipping was mandatory and very public: the cane was used on the hands for minor infractions while ‘benching’ (boys) and ‘spanning’ (of the skirts, for girls) was applied for more ‘egregious’ ones.
When in line to get one’s dose, sniffling bursting into wails moved downstream like a Mexican wave. For really stepping over the line (like ‘skulking’ or ‘playing hooky’) the headmaster would pull all the blackboards aside and have the whole school enjoy the spectacle. The scene was reminiscent of the public hangings that I saw in the ‘cowboy’ movies.
As one who was considered ‘bright’ – and more to the point, who also stuck to the straight and narrow, I was spared a whipping until Second Standard (now Grade 4). There was a subject called “Mental” where the teacher would pose ‘arithmetic’ questions that had to be answered by computing them “in the head” within a set number of seconds. For reasons that I still cannot fathom, I got ten out of ten wrong. The teacher (Miss July, I still remember) took this as a personal affront on her teaching prowess, flew into a towering rage, and gave me such a hiding that even my battle-hardened friends were agog. She actually jumped on the bench to apply some blows to my head. I never lived that down for the rest of my days at primary school: the ‘whiz’ had gotten a taste of the medicine.
I still remember the feeling of dread at the randomness and viciousness of the beatings that my friends endured. But they became physically immune to the whippings. I am sure that most were scarred for life. Sadly most grew up to become “beaters” – of their children for sure – and probably of their wives; beating was the way to instil ‘discipline’. My father used the technique (sparingly, but the threat was always there) on the rest of my nine siblings, but I was spared. I grew up with my grandparents who had probably mellowed – but also who could never catch me for infractions such as ‘stealing’ the neighbours’ fruits.
I have never spanked either set of children. The first son and daughter are now adults who did quite well, thank you. The only time I came close to spanking was to slap my son on his buttock for something he’d done when he was about six. I’ve never forgotten his look of surprise and hurt. In Guyana, the schools by now had graduated to use of the cane only by the headmaster or one senior teacher. My “Guyana kids’ were each spanked a couple of times – and they report that they were more struck by the ‘unfairness’ of the experience. Their friends, they report, also got inoculated.
So what are my recommendations on corporal punishment? I do believe that it is cruel and inhuman punishment – and children are human, I believe. In my estimation, there’s no doubt that children have to be taught to obey the rules – that’s what ‘socialisation’ is all about, isn’t it? But that discipline has to be inculcated by parents and teachers who practice what they preach.
All too frequently, those who transmit values do so only to who talk about them. Do our teachers really display a love of their subjects? If they do, then they don’t have to resort to whips. If ‘learning’ is important to children, it is up to the creativity of the teachers to make that evident to the children. Values, including the love of learning, cannot be transmitted through exhortations: even accompanied by the ‘rod’. If we want children to become functioning and adjusted members of society, we must spare the rod and become models for the behaviour we want to pass on.
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