In our discussions on abuse, we realised that each of us had different ideas of what was, or wasn’t abuse. Many youth workers involved in this process experienced physical punishments at home and school. We know that this type of discipline is still common in many parts of Africa (as well as other parts of the world), and many people truly believe that this is in the child’s best interest. We also heard from educators and parents who believe that moving away from physical discipline and harsh punishments makes children ‘soft’, and those who believed that they had been physically punished were now ‘fine’. However, it is also illegal in some of our countries, even if this is enforced. 

We realised that the best way to approach this was to ask ourselves what we wanted the young women and girls involved in our activities to learn and become.

  • Did we want them to become leaders, or just to be obedient? 
  • Did we want them to be able to make informed decisions about their futures, or simply to follow whatever was normal in the environment around them? 
  • Did we want them to set the world on fire in positive ways, or to melt into the background, too scared to put a foot wrong?

We do not believe that ‘sparing the rod spoils the child’. We do not believe that children will become spoiled and soft if they are not beaten. We believe that the role of parents and educators is to prepare children and young people to become leaders in their own lives. 

How can young women and girls learn to lead, if they cannot make mistakes and learn from them? How do they learn how to do the right thing, if punishments don’t teach us why what they did was wrong? Does beating children teach children to understand that their actions have consequences? Young people’s brains – and decision-making ability – only fully develop when they are 25. Throughout this time young women and girls are learning to assess risk and make choices. Our role as educators is to help children and young people to assess these better, and link actions to consequences. If their poor decisions are met only with physical punishment, do they learn why that was wrong? 

Physically punishing children causes children great physical stress – raising their heart rate and stress hormones. Their undeveloped brains, at that moment, cannot distinguish whether they are being beaten out of love or anger. They are scared. 

As youth workers and educators, we need to consider whether we see discipline as training young people to become virtuous leaders, able to discern good and bad, and make the right choices, or people who fear and defer those in positions of power and authority? 

Pain-induced compliance may lead to behaviours we want to see now, but not to be inspiring, proactive and courageous mothers, daughters, wives, politicians and businesswomen in the future. 

Reflection Questions: 

  • Do we (and our staff) understand why physical punishment is to be avoided?
  • Do we assume that physical punishment – even severe beatings –  may sometimes be in the interest of a child? Or that the child may in some occasions have behaved in a way that deserved this punishment?
  • How do we talk about ‘discipline’, ‘obedience’ and ‘punishment’ in our organisations? Do we see discipline and good behaviour as an end in themselves, or as a part of a child developing her own ability to discern right and wrong and to make good decisions?

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