Hiding to Nothing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 October, 1993, 12:00am

THE sickening crack of dad's belt; the snap of mum's wooden spoon across the back of your thigh. Being naughty, being punished - childhood memories.

Now, in most parts of the civilised world, corporal punishment is out, and non-punitive discipline is seen as the only way to make the children of the '90s see the error of their ways.

But in Hong Kong, parents are hitting as hard as ever. A young professional Chinese couple who have two children and spank as they feel it's necessary say: 'Unfortunately spanking is somewhat ingrained in Chinese culture because of a saying that implies without spanking you ruin your child's personality. Besides, we're okay as people and we were spanked as children. If they're really naughty they get spanked - it's as simple as that.' Corporal punishment was banned more than two years ago in Hong Kong schools, but parents are relatively free to discipline their children as they see fit. Psychologists say children are still coming to school with bruises and tales of how their parents layinto them behind closed doors.

'Spanking is a very degrading form of punishment which turns into child abuse if it occurs regularly. We are not talking about parents who give their children a light whack on the hand, but those who - often in response to bad school grades - slap childrenin the face, box them on the ears, use straps, slippers or other instruments to inflict pain,' says Sansan Chang, director of the Hong Kong Council of Early Childhood Education.

'We think a lot of it is related to the pressures of homework, the fact that Chinese parents desperately want their children to achieve and resort to hitting and physical punishment when their children don't perform and live up to their expectations.' So seriously is the council taking this issue that a sub-group of Child Safe Action, called Against Smacking Kids (ASK), has just been formed to look into the problem.

Against Child Abuse director Priscilla Lui confirms much of the spanking appears to be related to school grades. 'We get between 400 to 600 calls on our hotline every year, and a high number of these are related to corporal punishment and school grades. Parents cane, slap, beat with objects and bite their children - often when they don't do their homework.' In Sweden, any one of these incidents would attract criminal prosecution, as hurting a child intentionally has been deemed a crime since 1966. Smacking and other forms of physical punishment falls under minor assault and is punishable by a fine. Finland, Denmark and Norway have similar laws. Germany has vowed to outlaw physical punishment by 1994, and Scotland is examining legislation to prohibit the use of an object to hit a child, and all but the lightest of smacks.

But while child care experts in Hong Kong are unanimous in their support of non-punitive discipline theory, Chinese parents pay more than lip service to the Cantonese equivalent to 'spare the rod and spoil the child'. Child Assessment Centre clinical psychologist Joseph Lau, who sees hundreds of local children every year, says: 'There's no doubt many Chinese parents believe in spanking. They also expect blind obedience and have an attitude of 'you'll do it because I'm your parent, that's why'. They are not generally democratic parents and like to be firmly in control.' Mr Lau says parents here have a particular penchant for hitting children with a feather-duster. 'Giving hidings with a feather-duster is almost a Chinese tradition - it hurts and only leaves a little mark. Parents also use other cooking utensils, clothes hangers or the first thing they can lay their hands on. This is when spanking becomes dangerous and degrading for the child,' he says.

Peter Randall, chief information officer of the Royal Hong Kong Police, admits police only have jurisdiction to become involved in cases more serious than a spanking, or when they think the child is actually in danger. 'A police officer would have to use his discretion and intervene to protect the child, but only if he suspects physical abuse. In this case a medical check-up might be sought if there are signs of physical abuse (cuts and bruises) and the case might then be referred to the social welfare department.' Against Smacking Children will be looking at how serious and prevalent the problem is, says Mrs Chang. 'If we find it's serious then legislation must be introduced to prevent spanking.' She says she has seen children who have been burnt with boiling water or cigarettes, and other forms of physical punishment. But nobody can say how often and to how many children this is happening.

'Parents should be taught not to use physical punishment as a form of discipline. It is not necessary and entirely negative. A child who is frequently spanked is bound to suffer psychological damage,' she says.

Now almost a voice in the wilderness, American psychologist James Dobson wrote in his book Dare to Discipline (which was, it should be noted, a reaction to liberal views of the '60s): 'The toddler is the world's most hard-nosed opponent of law and order, and he can make life miserable for his harassed mum. In his own innocent way he is vicious and selfish and demanding and cunning and destructive. When a child can successfully defy his parents during the first 15 years . . . he develops a natural contempt for them.' While many parents may agree, all Hong Kong professionals spoken to strongly disagreed with Dobson, who also wrote: 'Spanking should be reserved for the moment a child (aged 10 or less) expresses a defiant 'I will not'. When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you had better take it out on him, and pain is a marvellous purifier.' 'But what are the alternatives?' cry exasperated parents, themselves probably whacked as children.

Priscilla Lui says spanking is not the best way, but acknowledges that few parents have the restraint to never spank and should not be condemned for what is human nature.

'There are two groups of parents who spank; those who are genuinely concerned about their children and think spanking will benefit them, and a small minority who are actually cruel,' she says. 'It's very difficult to ask parents to stop spanking altogetherbecause there is an aggressive element in all of us and spanking comes naturally - especially if we were spanked as children. The problem is that nobody smacks when they are calm. From what we see it's almost impossible to stay cool and spank a child, which is where the problems come in. This is why it's better to decide to never spank and do your best to control yourself.' Chandran Meera, counsellor and administration officer of the Marriage and Personal Counselling Service, a private agency funded by the Community Chest and Jockey Club, says: 'Counsellors and social workers in schools can vouch for the fact that plenty of spanking is going on. We believe it serves no purpose at all, and is often the parent's frustration and inability to cope that causes the spanking. There is no place for it even as a last resort.' Psychologist Dr Rosanna Kao, is also adamant spanking serves no purpose. 'It doesn't help children learn anything at all, nor does it resolve the situation. If the child needs to learn a lesson - which is presumably the purpose of spanking - the parent andchild need to talk the whole situation out and decide together what they are going to do about it. Spanking is cruel and demoralising, and never achieves anything positive.' One of Mr Lau's (Child Assessment Centre) suggestions was to have a token reward system with children: 'If a child behaves well give him a silver star, when he's collected a few stars, reward him. If he's bad take away some of the stars.' Specialist child psychologist David Haines, who runs regular parenting classes, says: 'On the surface it may look like spanking works, but it doesn't. At best it's ineffectual, but at worst it breeds resentment, anger, violence, revenge and fear. It also decreases the communication levels between parent and child. Instead of trying to control the child, parents should try to influence the child. This can be done by communicating, by consistency and setting clear boundaries. If the child misbehaves it needs to be shown it's okay, even if its behaviour is not.' According to Mr Haines, small children are not intentionally naughty. 'Children will be children. If a toddler picks up his plastic dinosaur and whacks it against your antique table, he's not being naughty, he's exploring. You need to let him know his behaviour is not appropriate and re-direct his attention.' However, what local parents have to say shows that what happens in reality - even with enlightened couples - is a far cry from the ideal being set by professionals.

The Chans - she a university administrator and he a prominent lawyer - have a four-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. They made a conscious decision not to spank their children before they were born. 'I decided not to smack my child, but this takes great restraint, and after experiencing two children I can now understand people who do smack,' says Mrs Chan.

'When my children were younger than four I gave them smacks on the palm if they did something that was totally unacceptable or dangerous; if they kept on touching an electric socket, for example, I would smack their palm and tell them that their hand was being naughty and that a smack would help them remember not to let their hand do this again. I always made it clear that they were being smacked because of what they were doing, that their action was bad.

'For bad report cards I would not spank, but would let them know I was very disappointed. I recently explained to my daughter that her private education was costing the same as our Filipino maid and that while we didn't expect her to be the best in her class, we expected her to make full use of the benefits of being privately educated.' The Roebucks - he an architect and she a lawyer - are from Australia and have three children: 'I believe that the punishment has to be tailored according to each child, and it depends on various factors like their response and how old they are,' says Mrs Roebuck. 'I only smack for very anti-social or dangerous behaviour, and I do it as seldom as possible because then it has more impact when it's really needed. One child responds well to smacking, but for another child locking them in their bedroom is a far more effective punishment. I think it is almost impossible to say you'll never smack your child, especially if you were smacked as a child, because it's absolutely ingrained.

'I try to rather teach them the logical consequences of their behaviour. For example, if they don't eat dinner they go hungry; if they don't get ready for school in time they go in their pyjamas. When they were really little I taught them what 'hot' was by letting them touch something hot, so that it didn't burn them, but was uncomfortable enough for them to remember.' She says it is completely unacceptable to spank a child for bad grades and would never consider it.

But while plenty of physical punishment goes on in Hong Kong, there is some hope that things are changing here. 'Families are smaller now, which means children are a more precious commodity,' says Dr Kao. 'Parents are starting to think of alternatives to spanking. We've got a long way to go, but it's a start.'



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