Virtually every culture and faith teaches children some version of ‘the golden rule’ – i.e., that you should treat others the same way you would like to be treated. So what are we teaching children when we use physical discipline against them? That resorting to aggression is a valid way to solve a problem? That if someone does something we don’t like, it is OK to hit them?
These questions are too big to be handled thoughtfully in such a brief blog post, but they are questions that many television viewers may be asking themselves, and each other, in light of NBC’s new miniseries, “The Slap,” which premiered in the United States on Thursday 12 February.
The dramatic arc of the show, based on a best-selling Australian novel and series, centers on an adult who disciplines an out-of-control child – not his own son – with a slap during a backyard barbecue. The subsequent drama that unfolds over the course of eight episodes finds family and friends choosing sides, with some agreeing that the unruly child needed a firm hand to be brought into line, and others saying it is never right for an adult to use force against a child. The tightly knit group is soon driven apart by what happens next.
Although this is a fictional story depicted on a small screen, we have evidence to show it represents a disturbing worldwide pattern. Last year, UNICEF released the most comprehensive collection of data on violent punishment of children to date. The numbers starkly showed that violent discipline is the most common form of violence in childhood.
On average, the survey data from 62 countries indicated that almost a billion children aged 2-14 had been physically disciplined in the home in the month before the survey was taken.
Physical discipline, also known as corporal punishment, is defined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.”
About four in five children had been physically punished and/or subjected to psychological aggression while 17 per cent had been severely disciplined (e.g., hit on the head, face or ears or hit hard and repeatedly).
The effects of many types of violence can be lifelong, and can even be passed from generation to generation. Abundant evidence exists to show how violent discipline is associated with – among other negative outcomes – poor mental and physical health later in life, increased violence and aggression, and damage to family relationships.
One interesting revelation in our data analysis was that many children are subjected to physical punishment even when adults in the household don’t think it is necessary. This gap may seem illogical but it could be explained by the fact that many parents lack alternative, non-violent methods of discipline.
That is why UNICEF promotes strategies such as helping parents, caregivers and families better understand their child’s early development and teaching them about positive parent-child interactions, including non-violent discipline.
One such programme targeted families with children aged 3 to 5-years-old in low-income districts of Istanbul, offering training and discussions on child development and parenting. Two years later, an evaluation found that mothers were communicating better with their children; the children had fewer behavior problems and; incidences of physical punishment had dropped by a staggering 73 per cent. A follow-up study found that, later in life, those children had gone on to do better in school and had more successful careers than children whose families had not benefited from the programme.
On the legislative front, progress is being made towards eliminating all violent punishment of children in homes, in schools and in all other settings. As of the end of 2014, corporal punishment in the home has been prohibited in 44 countries, in alternative care and day care settings in 50 countries, in schools in 122 countries, and in penal institutions in 130 countries.
The pace of law reform is accelerating rapidly, with 10 countries adding their names to the list of those that prohibit corporal punishment of children in the home and all other settings, in 2014 alone. Other governments are also expressing their commitment to reform; at the end of 2014, 45 countries had clearly committed to prohibition.
While this is encouraging news, 91 per cent of the world’s children are still unprotected in law from corporal punishment in the home, and 23 countries lack laws that prohibit corporal punishment in any setting.
Violence is not inevitable. It can be prevented and it is critical to act now to create safe environments for children which allow them to grow up free from fear.
For more information on progress to end corporal punishment in your country, visit: www.endcorporalpunishment.org. For more information on UNICEF’s global initiative to end violence, visit: http://www.unicef.org/endviolence.
Susan Bissell is the Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Headquarters in New York.