The recent debate over corporal punishment has revealed a wide gap in opinion, with a majority of citizens appearing to be in favour of licks. It is also clear from the way both sides have framed the discussion that there is little or no hope of a meeting of minds.
This is so much the case that people cannot even agree on what they saw on the now-infamous Facebook video in which a mother, Helen Bartlett, beat her 12-year-old daughter with a belt. Some people interpret her attitude as mindless rage, others see a self-controlled woman applying measured blows.
Those who oppose corporal punishment are convinced that beating children is an absolute wrong, while those who are in favour are equally convinced that physical punishment is absolutely essential for keeping “difficult” children on the straight and narrow.
Ideally, such differences of opinion should be settled by reasonable debate informed by evidence and ethical argumentation. Parenthood, however, is an emotive topic and most parents tend to believe that they know what is best, not only for their own children, but for other people’s children as well. This is why even persons who do not beat their children have expressed support for corporal punishment, since other people’s children are not as well-behaved and as charming as their own.
For this reason, there is probably no other topic on which the views of experts are so readily dismissed, since every parent naturally feels they are the most knowledgeable persons about their children. This is, of course, true in the sense of familiarity, but knowing your child’s quirks is a different sort of knowledge from knowing the most effective parenting practices.
But ours is a society in which research is not widely respected and where politics rather than data usually inform policy decisions, including whether there should be a law on corporal punishment. That is unfortunate, because there has in fact been extensive research on parenting and a consensus has begun to emerge on the best practices parents can use in order to help their children grow up to be happy and healthy adults.
Thus, the most effective parenting style has been categorised as “authoritative”. These parents indulge their children but also set clear limits and, most importantly, explain the reasons for those limits and, when children transgress, the reasons for any punishment. Psychologists have also found that this talk approach has the additional benefit of widening a child’s vocabulary, which has academic benefits later on.
The debate, however, has revealed that even people who are not adamant supporters of corporal punishment do not know how to discipline children without licks. It therefore seems that parental education would be a good first step in addressing this issue.