Trustee Emily Hogge is spending 12 months on the ground in South Africa. She is providing monthly despatches exploring the impact our work is having on local communities in KwaZulu Natal and Cape Town. Her previous reports can be found here. This report is a reflection on physical punishment in South African schools and homes.
Make sure the door is open, try not to touch the children, and don’t ask a child any questions! These were all instructions drilled into me as a trainee teacher in the UK. One of my oldest memories, as an eight-year old, was watching a parent pull down her child’s shorts in the school playground and hit her for throwing a stone at another child; clearly this horrified me. Then I came to rural South Africa where I know that the children I teach get hit at home; with some suffering worse.
Is hitting a child ever right? It’s a difficult question to answer and one that many of us ponder especially as parents and teachers. It has become seemingly more relevant to us as our older boys show me the scars on their hands from where they are being hit at their new high school. Corporal punishment is against the law in South Africa and not used at Khethani.
As a teacher I always strive to create a safe positive learning environment in my classroom. I give out stickers, merits, lollipops, star of the week, star mathematician, star writer, display children’s work and shower them with positive praise. However, I have come to the realisation over time that although this does work, nothing I introduce is as effective as a detention. Ultimately, if a detention means a child will be hit at home this is the most effective way to change behaviour. Does this make hitting right? No. But it makes you think about whether it can be used as an effective disciplinary technique. When I hand over the detention I see a level of respect in the child’s eyes which is missing in the UK. I see an understanding that they have done something wrong and that they realise that they need to learn from this. I hear the respect they have for their parents and witness this when they are collected after a detention. This respect is heartening and maintains the parent’s balance of power in the home. You don’t watch parents being hit or kicked by their screaming five year old in the supermarket or see them chasing after a child who is refusing to listen to them.
Hitting is not just confined to home. Children are hit in the classroom. This style of punishment has been used for centuries across the world. It can maintain order in the classroom; it can maintain respect for the teachers. You don’t hear children running around hitting other children, throwing chairs or destroying property as in the UK. As with their parents, the children respect their teachers, treating them as an adult expects to be treated. I am continually amazed by the respect the children show to their teachers, I no-longer fear being hit by a flying object or have to evacuate the classroom as a child struggles to control their anger. I haven’t been sworn at or shouted at for months. As the UK continues to move further away from corporal punishment, children are increasingly empowered at times holding their teachers to ransom.
Parents are often the driving force behind the continual use of corporal punishment at school as they want it to continue and seldom take teachers to task when it happens. In fact some Khethani parents have asked us to do away with detentions and simply administer a hiding to their child.
I recently had a conversation with one of our children. I asked him, “Who do you respect more: the teacher who hits you or the teacher who doesn’t?”
He looked at me and said honestly, “the teacher who hits me.” On further questioning he explained that this teacher has power over him, he commands respect through fear of the pain of being hit which outweighs the pain of disappointing an adult.
Then I asked him, “who do you love more the teacher who hits you or the teacher who doesn’t?” This he answered fast with confidence, “The teachers who don’t hit me.” He explained: “Because they care about us. They want us to do well and they show us how without hitting.” However, he went on to reveal an interesting point of view. He explained that his technology teacher was the best teacher he has ever had. This teacher does still hit him he explained, but he is fair in his hitting.
This fairness seems to be the key. The problem lies when hitting is unfair, when it leads to fear rather than respect. When children fear their parents or teachers’ actions. When hitting becomes more than a justified hiding and becomes an angry, unjustified beating. Being hit every day at school for not underlining a date is not justified, being tied up and beaten for not polishing your shoes is not justified. When I touched down on South African soil, unjustified hitting was all I knew. I have since learned that this isn’t always the case – sometimes giving a child a hiding can be justified. I can’t pretend I don’t still find it hard to see or hear a child being hit but I definitely understand the reasons behind it a lot more than I did before.
What can we do for our Zoe Trust children knowing that hitting is their reality? What we can do is to help children understand why they are being hit. To help them understand that at times it can be justified and at times it is not justified. To help them process each time they are hit, to help them realise that they can do something about it by changing their behaviour and to help them deal with their emotions so that they don’t become bitter and angry. We can’t stop our children being hit but we can help give them a voice to speak about what is happening, listen, understand and sympathise.