Fear and respect are not synonyms

I just noticed a post on a social media site that said ‘My parents spanked me as a child… as a result I now suffer from a psychological condition known as respect for others.’ It had been liked more than 100 times. Social media need to have a ‘Come ON, really!’ tab. It makes me sad that many people still believe that beating someone can teach respect. There is a blatant contradiction there. Fear and respect are not synonyms. Mindless obedience to those perceived to be in authority is also not respect. Apartheid was built and upheld by fear, cruelty and unquestioning acceptance of a system put in place by the authorities. True respect is acknowledging that we are all equal and have no right to hurt another creature to satisfy our own needs – even our deep desire to be seen as having well-disciplined and socially acceptable children.

Many adult South Africans were brought up during a time when corporal punishment was the norm in schools and force was openly used to control citizens. Democracy and a new constitution that protects the civil liberties of everyone should have heralded more peaceful times. Yet violence and brutality continues, in our streets, in our classrooms and in our homes. Those with conservative and traditional mindsets demand that we need to bring back ‘proper discipline’. They support the return of corporal punishment and the death penalty and see these violent means of control as causing no harm. How can we go back to what we used to do and expect a different outcome? We are where we are today because of what we used to do. We need to behave differently if we want something we have not had before. That our prisons are full with individuals who were harshly beaten as youngsters openly contradicts the idea that a ‘good hiding’ is just what misbehaving children need. The attitude that beatings are the best way to teach right from wrong is contributing to the hidden rage and the overt violence in our country.

Authoritarian discipline is a method of control that uses physical or verbal punishment to manage the behaviour of others. In homes and classrooms where an adult believes in this method children may be hit, threatened, shouted at, humiliated, blamed or criticised. When asked why they see this method as effective the adult will often retell of their own harsh punishment experiences and say, “It never did me any harm and it’s the only thing that really works.” Holding on to the role of survivor to avoid feeling anything they now side with the perpetrators of the violence and re-enact it on the next generation.

In the short term the method does work, if your only goal is to stop a child from doing something undesirable. It works because of a biological mechanism that warns a living thing that it is encountering a life threatening situation. Consider what happens when you touch a garden snail. The small, simple animal will immediately retract into its shell and wait until it feels safe to continue moving. This reflexive ability to retreat or freeze when in danger is present in even the lowest life forms and can be easily observed in sea anemones and millipedes. A child being spanked or humiliated in front of others will experience similar feelings of contraction and threat to the snail being poked with a stick. But, as a highly evolved species, the human organism also experiences complex emotions and thoughts. These become enmeshed with the sensation of pain and the basic survival instinct. The child may stop what he is doing to prevent further pain so the parent thinks the method worked. However, there is very little carry over to the next situation and the parent finds themselves having to threaten and beat more regularly, or more severely. The attachment bond between human parent and child is a remarkable gift that has recently become the focus of intense interest for neuroscientists. This ability to bond allows our human species to learn from hearts and minds of others and to wire our brains in unique ways, unfolding awesome potentials as we progress through time. Yet we abuse this bond when we beat children. Each time the trusted adult uses pain to control the child it impacts on the child’s reflexive, emotional and cognitive neural networks affecting their very approach to the world. It is this that causes the long-term repercussions in our society.

A child that experiences authoritarian discipline, through a combination of the need to survive, unresolved feelings and intelligent thought, learns:

  • It is all right for someone who loves you to hurt you
  • It is all right to use force to get what you want
  • If you are misbehaving, don’t get caught. If you get caught – lie.
  • Do whatever you want to do, someone else will tell you when enough is enough
  • Someone in power is responsible for sorting out problems
  • To avoid pain, don’t be yourself, conform to what others want you to be

Operant conditioning has replaced beatings in some environments. Here a parent or teacher gives or withholds material or emotional rewards to manipulate behaviour.  Desirable acts are given extra attention in the form of treats, money or privileges. Undesirable acts result in loss of privileges, isolation (being sent to your room), or being denied a favourite activity. The method is based on successful experiments with rats and pigeons that were trained to solve problems for food. In the short term the method also works, and if applied consistently order is generally maintained in the home or classroom without a need for violence. However, children are not small animals that can be motivated by instinctual drives alone. They also have emotional needs for self expression, autonomy and positive regard. These higher needs are frustrated in a conditioning discipline system. The child is coached to rely on outside judgement of what is valuable and not to trust their own inner sense of what is healthy and right for them. Over the long term they learn:

  • To conform, at the loss of creativity/autonomy
  • I am not likable unless I do as others want
  • Be devious but behave nicely when you are being watched
  • Competitiveness and inequality
  • My value is determined by the outside world
  • Things to strive for in life are material rewards
  • Only put in effort if you are sure you’re going to get a reward
  • Manipulate others to get what you want

South Africans have taken many big steps socially, politically and technologically. Politicians stress the need for further transformation. Marianne Williamson said that ‘there is no single effort more radical in its potential for saving the world than a transformation of the way we raise our children’. We need to interact differently to create a society where people do not accept cruelty in any form, do not use force or dishonesty to better themselves, monitor their own behaviour without the need for extreme policing or bribes, and make responsible choices without the need for top-down power structures.

If you have, or are planning, a family or work with children on a daily basis and you want to make a positive change in the world you can seek advice from a professional trained in early childhood development. Coaching is available to learn new and nurturing ways of managing children and there are numerous books and websites that explain effective strategies.

If you were spanked as a child, and think that it was a good thing and did you no harm, you might want to put your foot onto the path of self development and start looking at some of the assumptions you were taught to blindly accept as a youngster – for fear of being beaten.

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