Sparing The Rod
By Kevin Baldeosingh, April 8, 1999
From "Caribbean Commentary" at http://www.caribscape.com/baldeosingh/

If I could find the damn fool who first wrote "Spare the rod, spoil the child", I'd take a rod myself and beat him like a carpet. As far as I'm concerned, that little homily has caused more human misery over the centuries than slavery, Hitler and HIV combined.

Over the past few weeks, letters have been appearing in the papers recommending that parents and teachers start beating children in order to curb violence among schoolchildren. These letters, almost invariably, are Biblical and uninformed. (Pardon my redundancy.) I have seen only one letter which took the opposing view. Naturally, that writer was far more logical than the set of idiots who believe beating children is the best way to teach them that violence is wrong.

Besides this obvious contradiction, the child-beaters always start from false premises. They argue, for example, that parents who do not apply the whip encourage their children to be undisciplined and even to become criminals. Well, I can't cite any local research, but I do know that my parents didn't beat me and yet in 36 years I have managed to keep my stomach flat and avoided murdering anyone.

They also argue that it is because parents have stopped beating that the youths are more violent nowadays. In fact, I doubt that parents beat their children any less now than they did 30 years ago. Maybe the practice has declined among the middle-class, but then the most violent youngsters mostly come from the working class where "beat de chile" is still the rule. I would also lay 10-to-1 odds that nearly everybody on Death Row comes from homes where they were regularly beaten as children.

On top of all this, the latest research shows that beating children has effects even more pernicious than encouraging them to see violence as a legitimate means of getting people to do what you want. A study done between 1986 and 1990 on 900 children by a University of New Hampshire team found that children who are never or rarely spanked do better on some intelligence tests that children who are regularly smacked. These children, all between one and four years at the start of the study, were given tests of cognitive ability (i.e. the ability to learn and recognize things). Team leader Murray Strauss says, "The children who were spanked didn't get dumber [but] spanking is associated with falling behind the average rate of cognitive development."

Strauss found that parents who didn't use corporal punishment usually tried to control their children's behaviour by reasoning with them. He theorised that this approach gave the child more cognitive stimulation, hence accounting for their faster development over children who habitually experienced corporal punishment. (Not, of course, that this would convince Trini parents to change the way they treat their children. Ours is a culture which respects academic achievement, but is quite fearful of actual intelligence. Thus, I suspect that given the choice between a child who is dumb but obedient and one who is smart but disobedient, the majority of Trinidadian parents would readily choose the former.)

Strauss's findings tie in with the most recent research on brain development in children, which strongly suggests that environment can determine the kind of adult a child will grow up to be. Up until the age of ten, a child's brain is still forming and therefore, within its standard structure, quite plastic. A baby is born with about 100 billion brain cells but the wiring between all these cells doesn't stabilize until around the age of ten, when the brain destroys the weakest synapses. The strongest synapses are those which have been preserved by repeated or intense experiences. It is those connections which shape the finer structures of our brains. And the evidence shows that our neural structures determine, not only our intelligence, but our very personalities.

For example, there is evidence that children who are exposed to a stimulating, loving and stable environment from birth probably grow more connections between brain cells and have less chance of contracting brain diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's in old age. On the other hand, researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine have found that children who don't play much or who are rarely touched develop brains 20 to 30 percent smaller than is normal for their age. Similarly, children who are physically abused early in life develop brains that are extremely attuned to danger - as adults, such persons will be more quick-tempered, fearful and ready to respond violently to adverse stimuli.

Now you might think all these arguments prove beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that beating children can only exacerbate the problem of violence in our society. But not so. After all, the Bible says, "Withhold not correction from the child:...Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from Hell." (Proverbs 23:13,14) And what matters science and logic compared to the Word of God?

Copyright 1999 Kevin Baldeosingh


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