The big discipline question: To cane or not to? A scrutiny of Nigeria’s corporal punishment culture

The bright lights at the mall in Owerri, Imo state, adequately mask the dusk. There is chattering, adults strolling, often times speaking loudly, as they meander through stores admiring the array of items therein.

I see a couple, with their children, who decide to walk into the same store I am in. The two children in parents’ hands, excited to see all the fancy items the store had, start to examine some of them, just like their parents.

The mother snaps, smacks the kids’ arms swiftly one after the other, and shouts, “stop that or I will beat the hell out of you”. The kids stop immediately, but they are unable to hold their urge to admire the toys. So, in less than five minutes, the kids, who look about 3 and 4, go back to touching. The mother, having none of that, spanks them several times on their buttocks.

“You don’t listen,” she yells. “You don’t listen”. I interfere “It is OK madam, they are just kids, the toys are too attractive.”

The woman hisses, “mind your business.” I try to make amends and apologise; then introduce myself to interview her on physical punishment.

“Have you taught them to look at the items carefully? I eventually ask.

She is livid and walks away.

My fixer, Grace Nwakanobi, says to me “you know it is not your business ‘true true’.”

And she goes ahead to ask me if I did not see that the kids wanted to “scatter” the store.

But that sort of “scattering” comes with the territory of early childhood. Children, in their early childhood, are curious, will explore and need creative play as part of activities to build their executive function, the centre on the developing child, Harvard University, explains.

The centre defines executive function as “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”

In other words, play is the essence of childhood, not what they do to get a break, but what they need for development.

In fact, in its new report titled: The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children, the American Academy of Paediatrics, asks paediatrician to recommend playful learning for the promotion of healthy development because children learn through looking and listening to those around them..

“Early learning and play are fundamentally social activities and fuel the development of language and thought,” the report reads.

“It has been demonstrated that children playing with toys, act like scientists and learn by looking and listening to those around them.”

In a guideline for nonviolent discipline titled: Positive discipline in everyday teaching, Save the Children, international nongovernmental organisation which advocates for the protection of the rights of children, among many things, highlights the need for children in their early years to play a lot.

The organisation says children’s need for movement is because their muscles are constantly growing; and adds that it is extremely difficult for children in their early years, 0-8, to sit still for “any length of time”

“They have a great deal of energy. They seem to never tire. They are always in motion – running, jumping, sliding and skipping,” the guideline reads.

“They are gaining important skills in balance and coordination. Their brains cells are forming new connections. Because physical movement is critical to all of these developments, children have an inborn motivation to move. It is extremely difficult for children of this age to sit still for any length of time. Not only is movement important for their physical and brain development, it also is important for their social development. By playing active games, they learn social skills, such as cooperation, turn-taking, and conflict resolution. Physical activity also is important for children’s emotional health. It helps them release tension – and to experience joy in their newfound physical competence.”

Yet, a lot of parents, teachers and caregivers in what they term discipline, resort to hitting children to curb play and movement -a crucial aspect of childhood.

Children’s rights and discipline

Discipline has overtime come to mean consequence and punishment (physical) for childhood (mis)behaviour.

But Joan Durant Phd, author of positive discipline in everyday parenting, a book published by Save the Children, defines discipline as teaching that is based on setting goals for learning, planning an effective approach and finding solutions that work for children..

She speaks of discipline as a positive and constructive process of finding solutions to challenging situations and age appropriate behaviour, not “scolding or hitting”.

In fact, the convention on the rights of the child which has been ratified in 26 states in Nigeria, protects children from violence, and criminalises physical and mental punishment as discipline.

So globally, while cultural practices and a lack of awareness of children’s rights entrench violence against children including physical violence, children should actually be protected from such practices.

Is spanking cultural?

In Nigeria, hitting children is a rather common means of raising kids and correcting behaviour. The statistics prove it. Several parents, teachers and caregivers swear by spanking and say that children in their care turned out better off for this.

The campaign against hitting children as a form of discipline is often greeted with controversy, with discourse around it getting heated and emotions flaring.

For instance, on prominent Facebook group, concerned parent and educators, The argument on corporal punishment often gets intense. Tempers flare, emotions run wild, people disagree passionately on the topic; with most in support of violent discipline for children and receiving the campaign with cynicism, decrying it as a call to “spare the rod and spoil the child,” a biblical passage in the book of proverbs and introduce western culture to Nigeria.

One of the administrators of the group, Ayopeju Falekulo, an educator and the owner of a Montessori school in Lagos, tries several times to sway people off this method of discipline, which she describes as abuse. But she is greeted with a backlash and receives piles of denigrating words (verbal abuse). However, there is a handful of staunch advocates of non-violence of discipline who weigh in to support and explain the benefits of non-violent discipline alternative methods of discipline.

But contrary to popular opinion, spanking is not Nigeria/Africa’s peculiar culture.

Currently, there is a dearth of research about the effects of spanking in Nigeria and most available researches have been carried out by western societies that still majorly engaged in physical punishment and spanking as recently as twenty years ago.

For instance, in the United states, a 2013 Harris survey revealed that 86% of the respondents had been spanked, with nearly a fourth saying the punishment turned “too violent.”

This findings contradicts views held by several Nigerians that advocacy against physical punishment, caning inclusive, is foreign mentality. Physical punishment cuts across cultures and is an age long practice of humans.

As Save the children puts it, while “many traditions are important to maintain, as they preserve unique cultural knowledge and values, other traditions need to be questioned if they harm members of the culture.”

One of those tradition, the organisation says, is physical punishment which diminishes the dignity and the right of children who are full human beings and who because of their vulnerability, require even greater protection from physical and mental violence.

“Physical punishment is not unique to any culture. It is found all over the world,” Save the children in its positive discipline manual says. “It does not pass on unique cultural knowledge. It harms children physically and emotionally. Recognition of its harms has led more than 120 countries to abolish it from their schools and more than 24 countries have prohibited it in all settings”.

A vicious cycle of violence

As the conversation on physical punishment deepened on FaceBook group, concerned parents and educators, one heart wrenching comment of a member stood out. She had been spanked severely as a kid and developed low self-esteem as a result. The commenter revealed how she often spanked her children in anger because that was all she knew in terms of discipline. At the realisation of a cycle of violence, she deliberately put a stop to it. She was mostly flogging because of her anger than anything else.

The comment, amongst many comments that defended physical/violent discipline using the popular narrative that they were beaten (and turned out well) so they would in turn beat their children, reflects the consequence of the common phrase “violence begets violence” made popular by foremost civil right activist, Martin Luther King Jr.

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” King had said in one of his speeches.

Adebayo Oluwaminimodupefun, a 51-year-old pro-spanking member of the group, tells me in an interview, that she was thoroughly beaten as a child and so, beats her children as well.

“I was a Muslim and went to Islamic lesson,” she says. “There I received sense, because if you didn't want to be beaten, you would quickly do whatsoever (you are told to do) that can cause you to be late to lesson,” she says.

“Because I didn't want to be beaten I woke up earlier than others, did my house shores and went off to my koranic lesson,” she says, adding that her parents, especially her father, also hit her as punishment.

Oluwaminimodupefun says she spanked her kids, in their early years with rulers on their hands and fingers if they “scattered the sitting room or their bedroom or if they forgot to pack up and wash their plates after eating”.

As her kids grew older, she graduated to flogging them at night on their palms. “I do this at night when no one can stop me, it is a corrective measure.”

“If they offend me, just four on their palms…but for fighting, six”, Oluwaminimodupefun says. She says caning “has stuck into the kid’s brain.”

Nkechi Okoli, (not real name) another pro-spanking parent, says she beats her eight year old child so he can be strong. “When he runs, he falls. I want him to be strong so I beat him,” she says.

“I will keep doing it till he learns to hold himself while running.”

But Oluwaminimodupefun and Okoli having to flog their children often for the same behaviour calls to question the effectiveness of corporal punishment.

In an analysis of 20 years of research on physical punishment, the Canadian Medical Association Journal cited one research that revealed it took an average of eight spankings in a single session of corporal punishment to elicit compliance.

Alan Kazdin, psychologist, child psychiatrist and director of the Yale Parenting centre, in his journal article titled spanking children: evidence and issues, talks about evidences that show “mild noncorporal punishments such as brief time out from reinforcement or short-term loss of privileges in the context of praise and rewards can accomplish the goals for which spanking is usually employed”.

A knowledge of early childhood development helps to know age appropriate behaviour

Ada Chika, mother of three and founder of read a book, get a naira, an Anambra based foundation aimed at getting underserved children to read, talks to this reporter about her experience.

She says she spanked her children ages 4 and 6, in the past.

“I used to spank but it has not worked for me. Talking to my children and withdrawing privileges works better for me than spanking. I had to tell myself ‘it is not working’ because my kids keep repeating the behaviour. Now, I keep talking to them and if the behaviour keeps occurring, I withdraw some privileges. This has worked better for me,” says Chika.

Ada’s mum is a retired teacher and was strict disciplinarian. She did not hesitate to beat Ada as a mode of discipline. Ada says she turned out OK, but she withheld a lot of information from her mum in her teenage years; and at some point, dealt with an emotional trauma on her own because she did not trust her mum not to hit her if she shares with her.

There are various researches pointing at botched parental relationships as one of the consequences of physical punishment.

Oyindamola Remo, one mother, tells me she was thoroughly beaten as a child and as a result now has a substandard relation with her mother.

“My mum beat me every day, there was no day I didn't get beaten. Once I just thought to myself, mummy has not beaten me today, the next minute I would receive that spanking.”

“I didn’t even understand the things she beat me for me. I think she was taking out her frustration on her children. My mum trusted her friend worlds over mine and would beat me when they would tell her something negative about me even if it wasn’t true.”

"Maybe it worked. But I became very detached from my mum. She managed to instil discipline in me, but we were not close and I struggled a lot during my time with her that I could not wait to leave her,”

Remo, who now lives in the UK, admits to have spanked her daughter because that was all she knew.

“I spanked my first daughter who is two years because that was all I knew,” Remo says.

But Remo’s daughter continued to defy her instructions causing her to question the efficacy of this mode of discipline.

“She didn't change because of the spanking, she built a resistance and she would repeat the same thing. I became frustrated, so I stopped. I now make her face the wall, or ban her from watching TV or Ipad.”

Remo says she also incorporates a reward system and offers her daughter treats for good behaviour.

“She knows if she's being good, she will get a reward. She also knows I will withdraw privileges or use time out when she is being ‘naughty’

Other methods Remo applies is to squat to her daughter’s level to establish connection before correction takes place. Remo says she learnt the different discipline approach from her daughter’s nursery in London; and found it to be more effective than physical punishment.

“She is quick to apologise for a wrong doing now,” she says.

According to Remo, this sort of disciplinary approach is intentional and deliberate which is why a lot of people don’t adopt it.

“A lot of parents are busy, they don’t have time to be patient with their kids. They are also frustrated and take the frustration out on their children,” she says.

Discipline or child abuse

Based on UNICEF' violent discipline database

In July 2018, a little boy of five was brutalised by his grandmother, a man, who led the boy’s rescue mission told me.

This little boy's grandma whipped him brutally

The grandmother was frustrated as her daughter had dumped two (grand)kids with her, the man who spoke anonymously so the kid can also go unidentified, said.

The grandmother, who had no job, no house and squatted in a church, barely fed and often had nothing to give the children. She would then transfer her anger to the little boy and would flog him for the slightest or no offence at all.

The kids have been moved away from their grandmother who is now undergoing mental health evaluation.

The stories of adults abusing children in their care as an outcome of discipline are rampant.

Like the case of Uche Sopuru, a six-year-old girl, often complained to her mum of hating school.

“My daughter will come home, telling me she no longer wants to go to her school,” Sopuru’s mum told me.

“She would cry so hard, I would wonder why, until one day, she came home with scars on her arms. Her teacher had flogged her because she did not read”.

Sopuru’s mum was livid and went on to her daughter’s school to find out why her daughter had been caned hard enough to scar her body. She had made up her mind to call in the authorities but the teacher begged profusely saying she had been enraged because Sopuru ignored her totally when she asked her to read. Sopuru’s mum decided to let it slide.

The numerous cases of discipline causing bodily injury to children raises questions as regards if physical discipline is outright abuse. How much is too much caning, hitting or spanking? What are the effects of this sort of discipline on children?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines physical abuse as “the Intentional use of physical force against the child that results in – or has a high likelihood of resulting in – harm for the child's health, survival, development or dignity.”

“This includes hitting, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, strangling, scalding, burning, poisoning and suffocating.”

Also, article 19 of the child rights terms physical punishment as violation of child’s rights and argues against all forms of physical violence in relation to children.

In an analysis, the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows the relationship between the physical punishment and abuse dichotomy. It cites research showing that most physical abuse is physical punishment.

“The first cycle of the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect 39 (CIS 1998) showed that 75% of substantiated physical abuse of children occurred during episodes of physical punishment. This finding was replicated in the second cycle of the study (CIS 2003). Another large Canadian study found that children who were spanked by their parents were seven times more likely to be severely assaulted by their parents (e.g., punched or kicked) than children who were not spanked,” the analysis read.

Tiwa Soriyan, counselling psychologist, in an interview, agrees that most corporal punishment is doled out from a place of anger – a reaction, rather an effective plan to discipline.

Tiwa Soriyan, counselling psychologist, says many times corporal punishment is doled out of anger.

“You will agree with me that many times those who dole out this form of punishment are in a state of anger. There is a high level of displeasure or offence that necessitates this action. Most times it comes out as something that is not well thought out but as a reaction. There is no carefully laid out plan for discipline. Mostly, it is that the adult or parent, teacher is upset and strikes the junior one because of the way he is feeling, not really because to correct behaviour.”

“When the state of mind is such that it feels threatened, then one is in a fight or flight mode, not thinking rationally and that is the state most adults are in when they punish. And punishment is just to cause suffering, not to teach which is what discipline is,” Soriyan says.

With this in consideration, Soriyan says physical punishment is mostly abuse.

“We are definitely looking at abuse and when abuse comes into the picture, there is definitely an effect on mental health. If you dole out punishment without any well thought out plan for correction, then you are adding pain and injury. When pain people are doling out punishment, it comes in form of anger, which is the reason physical abusers are usually verbally abusive too.

Falekulo, Montessorian, school owner and anti-physical punishment campaigner, says caning or spanking is child abuse and means we have little or no respect for the child.

Ayopeju Falekulo, says it is important to understand children so they can be taught.

“One of the main things I think is the inability of us as adults to not understand our children. And this is all over the world,” Falekulo says in an interview with me.

“If we understand where a child is coming from, create a learning process that accepts the development process of each child as well as have respect for the child, the issue of caning will go away,” she says.

Falekulo says it is important to understand childhood development and then teach children to behave.

“If you do not teach a child what to do why are you beating the child doesn't know. We need to be proactive, not reactive to help a child appropriately. It is the lack of being intentional that causes screaming and shouting and beating our children up. We have a picture of a child that was beaten up by a teacher because the child did not write.

“Why would you beat a child for that. Is this child ever going to like the idea of writing?” she asks.

“The answer is no. You have not sown any positive idea about writing. You have driven the child away from this. We need to look for positive ways of getting our children to behave positively. Be intentional, find out what the child knows and what the child still needs to know and work in a playful way. Children between the ages 3-6 learn through their senses, so use those same learning tactics. When the child turns to six, they become reasoning learners. They are thinking, use that to help them to logically come to the conclusion,” Falekulo advices.

Physical punishment in schools can cause children to associate learning with pain

In a lot of private preschools in Nigeria, there is the burgeoning issue of unrealistic academic expectations set by the schools and parents for the kids.

Kids in their early years are expected to rote count to high numbers and write them, amidst other inappropriate expectations which require extended concentration span and no play or movement.

In an earlier interview with TheCable, Tolefe Ken-Iwatuje, an early years teacher, blames parents, untrained teachers and school owners for lessons that are not age appropriate, “uneducated and unrealistic”.

The unrealistic expectations cause teachers to resort to caning the children, among other physical punishment, to get them to achieve goals set by schools.

Almost all pro-physical punishment teachers I approached to speak in Lagos, refused to speak or chose to speak anonymously; because while several schools still cane pupils, caning has been banned in the state.

Kehinde Bamigbetan, the Lagos state commissioner of information, confirms this in a phone conversation. He says the use of corporal punishment has been banned in Lagos state, so schools engaging in this act are doing so against what is obtainable.

"Punishment like kneeling and cutting of the grass for instance can be used but it has to be done without the intent of injuring the child. It should also be noted that severe offence could be referred to a standing disciplinary committee in the school," he says.

One of the teachers in a private preschool in Lagos, with a non-spanking policy, tells this reporter that she has often asked for permission from parents and received requests from parents to cane kids for what she called “misbehaviour”.

Asked how the kids misbehaved, the teacher, who spoke anonymously, mentioned kids playing in class, talking, not sitting through a session; all behaviours that are age appropriate and can be redirected positively.

In Imo, like everywhere else in Nigeria, the stories of spanking abound in several schools, private and public alike.

It does not seem like this culture will abate especially with the abundance of neglected communities hosting underfunded public schools.

The teachers in these schools are more worried about the lack of teaching resources, dilapidated buildings with roofs leaking during the rainy season and children who come to school starving and looking malnourished, than the abolishment of corporal punishment.

With hunger biting little bellies hard, the kids, the teachers say often cannot cope with demands of the structured academic based preschool.

Still, the kids get caned when they fail to grasp concepts taught.

Eunice Peterson, (not real name) is a teacher at a public primary school in Owerri.

She is seated with two canes on her table waiting for the kids to get back to class after their break period.

I ask her if she uses the cane, she looks up at me with the corner of left eye, but does not answer immediately.

“Caning is not the problem,” she says.

“Look at the accommodation, it is not suitable for teaching and learning. This is a municipality that the government will say they are building schools. The kids don’t have books and most of the parents find it hard to buy writing materials for their kids,” she says.

Peterson hints at another problem that is not the fault of the kids, yet they still get caned for – undone homework.

“When we give homework, it comes back undone because parents find it difficult to help their children,” Peterson says. “So, I flog the children. I flog them when they are stubborn too, some of them play too much.”

Peterson is not the only one teacher who flogs pupils in their early years to learn. It is the prevailing trend in the state and occurs across pre and primary schools.

Chika Mbadiwe (not real name) tells me she canes the kids in her care, a set of 5-6-year olds, who are often too “playful” and don’t want to do their work.

“We flog o! In my school we flog the children when the play too rough or don’t do their work. It is discipline.”

In Community school in Mbieri, Kate Osineke, is a teacher with a fading passion. She tells me teaching is her first love but working under dire conditions tire her.

“But I am tired. They have not paid our salaries for over two months now. The children come to class hungry, they will tell me ‘mummy, I am hungry, my stomach is paining me.’ They don’t come with writing materials and yet the governor will say free education. If you ask their parents to buy, they will tell you ‘but is it not free education’. I can’t use money I don’t have to buy writing materials or books for these children. I already buy chalks from my pocket,” Osineke tells me.

One can easily understand this teacher's frustration and the attendant consequence on the quality of teaching she can hand down to the kids as well the ability of the kids to grasps concepts taught.

It is simple, hungry children cannot learn. Yet, the kids, Osineke tells me get flogged for failing to grasp concepts taught.

“I have to touch them if they don’t get the answers,” she says.

The kids in the school confirm to me that they are caned too.

The child might never enjoy writing and even drop out of school, the save the children’s book on positive discipline in everyday teaching,

Effects of physical punishment

“When a child hits a child, we call it aggression. When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility. When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault. When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline, ” Haim Ginnott, deceased childhood development expert says.

With research on physical punishment increasing in the last 20 years, the campaign against physical punishment has heightened. Several studies show links between what the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), termed “normative physical punishment” and child aggression, delinquency and spousal abuse in adulthood.

“Virtually without exception, these studies found that physical punishment was associated with higher levels of aggression against parents, siblings, peers and spouses,” an analysis by the CMAJ read.

In another study, psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan, found that children who are spanked often are more likely to exhibit defiance and aggression towards their parents and pairs. They also experience aggression and mental health issues.

"Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors," said Elizabeth Gershoff, one of the authors of the research.

Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin noted that spanking did not even have any significant effect on immediate compliance, moreso long term compliance.

Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, says the study, in fact, showed that “spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do."

Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor tested for some long-term effects among adults and found that they were more likely to support corporal punishment for their children entrenching a culture of violent discipline.

“Both spanking and physical abuse were associated with the same detrimental child outcomes in the same direction and nearly the same strength, Gershoff says.

"We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviours. Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree."

Falekulo says children who are spanked instead of being taught how to make the right choices will most likely grow up not learning to make good decisions.

"All we do is antagonise children. If they make a mistake, they need to learn about consequences. We can't make choices for them and when they adult we expect them to make decisions when they have not practised. This is the reason why we have people in government who make the wrong decision. They have not been properly prepared for what they have to do as adults."

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