"Violence against women: let's stop it at the start" states a new campaign by the Australian government - and rightly so. It seems that the narrative on the subject of family violence in Australia is changing to include the extensive knowledge available to us on the influence childhood experiences have on us as adults. The trajectory is moving in the right direction, but one major aspect of family violence has yet to be acknowledged and addressed by policy makers. That violence against women in the home presents a problem is irrefutable, but our society is lagging behind in joining the dots to recognise that the same is true for children. The presence of corporal punishment of children in homes across the country presents an impediment to the society we want to create.
Corporal punishment of children - also referred to as physical punishment and smacking - is considered assault in an ever-increasing amount of countries around the world - currently 49. However, a relic in Australia's Common Law states that "reasonable chastisement", including of the physical kind, may be used on children in Australia - and implements are not excluded from use. A high number of children experience corporal punishment at the hands of a parent, as approval rates for this type of punishment are high. Australian parents, reluctant to let go of the ways of the past, overwhelmingly use this form of discipline, and fail to realise and understand the adverse effects that this may have on their children's short and long-term wellbeing.
Corporal punishment is associated with a host of negative outcomes in childhood and adulthood, including mental health problems, addiction, impaired cognitive ability and many more. Research also shows us that corporally punishing children, even using less severe forms such as the favoured 'smack on the bottom' makes children more aggressive, both as children and as adults. Many studies have found that men who are corporally punished as children are more likely to be perpetrators of intimate partner violence as adults; and women who were corporally punished as children are more likely to become victims of intimate partner violence. Women who believe that corporal punishment is necessary to discipline a child are also more likely to accept being hit themselves. A society in which violence is normalised in this way is also a society in which reporting rates of violence are low, asin Australia. Moreover, parents who were corporally punished as children are more likely to approve of corporally punishing their own children, which allows the cycle of violence to perpetuate.
Intergenerational transmission of violence is thoroughly documented, and it encompasses any violence experienced by children at the hands of a parent - regardless of how the parent and society justifies this violence. Interviews with children have shown that corporal punishment, whether severe or less severe, causes trauma. Children become distressed and do not 'learn the lesson' they were meant to learn. Current corporal punishment laws allow angry parents to administer one-sided violence, and studies show that the intensity of the corporal punishment is likely to escalate and children more likely to be abused.
Hitting children to teach them that hitting is not allowed is a clear contradiction, and children perceive it as such. Basic psychology principles dictate that children learn through observation and imitation. A child may become immediately compliant after being smacked, but learns that dealing with frustration and misbehaviour through violence is acceptable. This is likely to be expressed in the playground, with peers, and eventually as an adult when a partner 'misbehaves'. Violence must not become normal to anyone, least of all the most vulnerable and impressionable members of our society.
Unfortunately the Australian government has not focused on research on corporal punishment and its contribution to violence in our society. Most of the research comes from the US, where corporal punishment in the home is legal in all states, and violence is prevalent. The recently released Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence omitted the subject entirely despite its undoubtedly important place in the family violence scenario.
But there is much hope for the future. Parents who are taught about the effects that corporal punishment have on their children are less likely to continue to use it. Many programs are currently available to teach parents how to discipline children without using physical force, and results show that these alternative discipline solutions are both tangible and effective. Intervention at the primary stage and adopting the same no-tolerance approach to family violence of all kinds is necessary to lower societal violence and offer better outcomes for Australian families.
So if we want to teach our boys to respect women, and if we want to teach our girls not to stand for it, we must teach them that they are respected at all stages of their lives, and we must model the behaviour that we want them to display and value.
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