Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?

Parents Debate the Merits of Physical Punishment

By Alexandra Cass

What is the best way to discipline a misbehaving child? This question has been posed by parents everywhere and despite thousands of articles and books purporting to provide the answer, parents are still not united on the best approach. For some, the answer is smacking, spanking or some form of corporal punishment. Despite numerous studies showing the negative effect of physical discipline and the need for empathetic methods, parents persist in defending the practice. Recently, new research has raised questions about the actual effectiveness of spanking children compared to its potential harm.

Corporal punishment has been a means of parental discipline for many generations.
Photo courtesy of http://www.specialedpost.com

Earlier this month, the Columbia University School of Social Work published a study for the American Journal of Pediatrics that tested spanking and child development across the first decade of life, using extensive interviews and assessments of families in 20 U.S. Cities. “These results demonstrate negative effects of spanking on child behavioral and cognitive development,” the study reports. Conceivably, a major concern posed by psychologists and activists, including in the Czech Republic, is the boundary between child abuse and a parent’s right to discipline their children as they see fit. Oftentimes parents around the world convicted of child abuse believe they have done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, there are also parents who mistreat their children and their actions either go unreported or are accepted by their society.

“I try to use words as much as I can. But sometimes [spanking] is necessary. It’s better to do it than just explain.”

In the Czech Republic, spanking was a prevalent method of punishing children before the end of the communist era in 1989. Although physical discipline is not as popular today, a government­ sponsored research study on violence against children conducted in 2009 found it has not disappeared completely. According to the study, 49.9 percent of Czechs felt that corporal punishment is necessary at least some of the time, and roughly a quarter stated that they believe it is good for a child’s upbringing. Interestingly, a poll conducted in 2005 by the highly accredited Parents Magazine found that 61 percent of American parents approve of spanking children and have done it at some point.

We ventured to the playgrounds at Riegrovy Sady and Bezrucovy Sady in Prague to ask Czech parents what they find to be appropriate when it comes to punishing children today and whether or not the approaches to discipline are more or less severe now than in years past. Here are a few of the answers we received:

∙ “It is quite usual [to spank] here in the Czech Republic, but not hard. Most likely I will use words; ‘if you will be bad I will pat you. But I don’t do it.” ­ Katerina Bartosova, psychologist, 38.
∙ “More increasingly, my generation of Czech parents use verbal reprimands, take away children’s favorite toys, iPads, impose a ‘no television for a week’ policy. However, many consider a light spanking on the child’s butt ok but never slapping a child’s face or head, for example…It was a lot more common among my parents’ generation. I remember my classmates being physically beaten when they brought home a bad final year’s report in elementary school.” ­ Vanda Thorne, professor
∙ “I think it depends on different social circles. Like, me and my friends, no. I’ve maybe [spanked] my kids once or twice. Less intelligent people will do that more often, I think.” ­ Gabrvela Duchackova, production manager, 29
∙ “The most common way to discipline, for me, is with words. I was never hit by my mother or father.” ­ Kristina, stay-at­-home ­mom, 34
∙ “I think the younger parents are using words more than the older generations of parents. The two groups are different. It is more okay for older parents.” ­ Aneta, journalist, 29.
∙ “I try to use words as much as I can. But sometimes [physical punishment] is necessary. It’s better to do it than just explain.” ­ Klara C., stay­-at­-home­ mom, 30
∙ “I think that girls are punished more softly. I have a five-year old boy. He’s very active and stubborn. I try really calmly repeating things, but sometimes it doesn’t work. I’m not sure if it’s right or not, but sometimes I [use physical punishment] when I don’t know what else to do. But it’s completely different for girls, I think….The attitude of most parents is different from my parents. But I was a stubborn child as well.” ­ Jana, stay­-at­-home­ mom, 34
∙ “It used to be more common in the past and now it is getting better. But I’m sure that it happens. I will use words, for sure, [as he gets older]” ­ Petra, marketing specialist, 33
∙ “I think when you are in small cities it is more common than in big cities, like Prague. People don’t have the  time to spend talking to their children. And the level of intelligence is different.” ­ Petra (different from previous), payroll practitioner, 33

Note: Some persons interviewed did not feel comfortable providing their full names.

Ear pulling: not as harmless as it may seemPhoto courtesy of www.pregnancy-baby-care.com

Ear pulling: not as harmless as it may seem.
Photo courtesy of http://www.pregnancy-baby-care.com

While those we interviewed were addressing parental punishment, it is also noteworthy that both the U.S. and Czech governments have discouraged the use of corporal punishment in educational and childcare institutions. Thirty-­one out of 50 states in the US currently ban the use of corporal punishment in schools and, in 2007, corporal punishment was banned in Czech schools under article 31 of the Education Act. Nevertheless, in November 2011, the Czech News Agency reported a study conducted by the research company GfK which found that 30 percent of Czech teachers have slapped a pupil, despite its illegality. The use of physical discipline in Czech homes, however, is still lawful. There are no legal guidelines or restrictions regarding the type or frequency of physical discipline that is safe or appropriate. The New York Times reported in 2012 that the number of children in the United States admitted to hospitals for physical abuse increased only 79% annually since 2000 while, according to the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the number of child abuse cases in the Czech Republic has increased over 20% in the last decade. It is not clear how much of this is due to greater awareness by police and relevant social office personnel. Presently, over 6,500 cases of child abuse are being reported annually in the Czech Republic. Keep in mind, this estimation does not include the number of unreported cases of child abuse. In 2007, the lack of restrictions was called into question in the Czech Republic after the nation learned of the shocking case of 8­year­old Ondrej, a little boy who was bound and starved by his own mother, causing a strong political reaction. Several politicians called for tighter laws protecting the rights and safety of children. In 2008, the Minister for Human Rights and Minorities, Džamila Stehlíková, asked for an outright ban on the physical punishment of children. During an interview with Radio Prague, child psychologist Petra Vrtbovská supported the ban, explaining that “some parents use physical punishment because it’s quick and easy. You smack the child and consider the matter closed. But corporal punishment has a negative effect on children because it can be very humiliating and the memory may stay with them for a long time.”

Nonetheless, in September 2008, Radio Prague reported that when Czech parents and citizens were polled about their opinions on such a ban, a large majority was opposed. The opposition was thought to be more of an objection to government interference in one’s personal choices rather than a support of physical discipline. Hana Cechova, a Czech expert on parenting who lectures on the theme “Respect and Be Respected,” said via email that it is unclear whether Czechs are turning their collective backs on spanking. “The public debate on physical punishment is, unfortunately, still full of the traditional views of punishment as a legitimate tool to force children to do what we believe is good for them,” she wrote. Alex Cass is in the NYU College of Arts and Sciences Class of 2015. Her hometown is Dallas, Texas. Caroline Drew contributed reporting. She is in the Wake Forest Class of 2015. Her hometown is 
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Categories: Culture, Fall 2013 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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