A study was published yesterday that received a fair bit of publicity, suggesting that almost half of parents support the return to using corporal punishment in schools. The argument goes that since the demise of corporal punishment, children’s behaviour has deteriorated as teachers no longer have effective methods to implement classroom discipline. Teaching has deteriorated as classes become war zones, and education has become a thing of the past as many pupils suffer due to the disruption caused by a few who have no desire to learn. Blah blah blah…
(Let me make it clear at the outset: I’m not advocating corporal punishment. Behaviour management is not considered to be an acceptable defence for violence between two adults in our court system- why should we therefore consider it an acceptable defence for violence between an adult and a child? )
When I was a child and at school, in the 70s and early 80s, corporal punishment was common in homes and schools. I was smacked by my parents occasionally- they did not need to often, and generally encouraged good behaviour by the use of other methods (grounding, removing privileges, star charts, praise etc). I do recall corporal punishment being used at primary and secondary school, but very rarely, as a well established system of sanctions and rewards existed to encourage good behaviour and teachers commanded a great deal of respect. However, my memories of school were generally that children respected teachers and staff; occasionally rules would be infringed and punished, but generally behaviour was relatively unproblematic. I’m sure this was not the case in every school at the time- but probably not to the extent that it appears to be now.
I wonder why things are so different now? I wonder if it is to do with the whole shift in ideas of parenting and priorities in our society.
Things appear to have changed with my generation- the ‘yuppie’ generation, the children of Thatcher- who are the parents today. Society changed around the time at which my generation was establishing careers and families- Thatcherism encouraged us to have it all, to pursue success, money, home ownership, careers and to live beyond our means. After all, we could pay it back later… Mothers rarely stayed at home with their children any longer; nurseries and child-minding services became big businesses. As did materialism- presents used to assuage parent’s guilt about not being able to spend as much time with their children any more. Thatcherism also caused one of the largest recessions ever experienced at that time, with home repossessions, homelessness, bankruptcy and family break-down becoming increasingly commonplace. Working hours gradually increased, until today we work longer hours than any other European country.
But is it that far-fetched to suggest that parents who felt guilty at spending little time with their children also felt reluctant to spend that precious time implementing boundaries and discipline? No parent wants their child to believe that they are only interested in discipline.
But children need boundaries. They respond well to boundaries. Consistent boundaries and consequences tells children they are cared about and loved. It gives them security. It enables them to fit in with society. Boundaries are essential.
Many children come into care because of poor parenting- their parents beg social workers to accommodate them as they cannot cope with their behaviour. In many of these cases, initially these children rebel against the boundaries implemented by their carers, but eventually begin to adapt and accept them. It doesn’t always happen this way of course, but I’ve seen many children recently where consistent boundaries and sanctions have had dramatic effects upon their behaviour. The key is in consistency.
We cannot expect that sending children to school with one set of rules and consequences (regardless of whether those are detention or corporal punishment) will have any positive effect on their behaviour if they then return to homes without boundaries.
Behaviour management starts at home- not school- and society needs to be considering more about the values we promote about what is important.
Is a big bank balance/ car/ house really more important than spending time with our children? Is climbing the career ladder really more important than being there to take our children to school each day and watch Horrid Henry with them after school? Is contributing to the development of the company that employs us really more important than contributing to the development of our children’s potential?
I’m not attacking individuals here- I’m suggesting that this is a structural problem with our society. And until we challenge the dominant thinking and rectify our values and priorities, we will continue to have uncontrollable children, disrupted classrooms, riots, and youth offending. I’m suggesting that the cause of these is not single-parent families or poverty, or a soft criminal justice system. I’m suggesting that they are symptoms of a skewed sense of what’s important in life.