, , , , , ,

Another Indian couple were recently the subject of a visit from Norway’s Child Welfare Services last week. Almost a year ago, Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya attracted attention with their dysfunctional domestic situation and its impact on their children, and last week, Chandrasekhar and Anupama Vallabhaneni were sentenced to jail by the Oslo District Court for child abuse. Apart from the comical value of watching the Indian media initially froth at their “patriotic” mouths over the cultural insensitivity of the Norwegians towards Indian citizens and then eat humble pie when all the facts came out, these events have sparked off a debate on parenting in India: is it okay for children to receive corporal punishment?

As a disclaimer, it should probably be stated at the outset that I am not a parent. It should also be noted that I went through school systems which did not prohibit corporal punishment, and that this post is based only on informal conversations with a few teachers in an unofficial capacity, all of whom had been teaching for at least ten years, a couple for almost thirty. Some of the teachers are at prestigious residential schools, and all of them at reputed public schools (in the old British sense). The input of a few parents has also informed this post, mostly from an upper middle class background, though none are employed in child-related activities.

One problem in speaking about corporal punishment is that it is used to describe practices across a wide spectrum of schools and socio-economic conditions. This camouflages other serious dysfunctions in various schools and school districts – lack of funds, poor quality of teachers, caste bias, etc. Many of these difficulties do not exist or do so at a significantly lower level in, say, elite public schools. No one doubts for a moment the occasional barbarism that we hear of in rural schools that leaves children maimed, even dead, due to a beating by a person of authority. While one can certainly focus on the immediate cause, the beating, we would be remiss if the larger picture were ignored. Who was this person? Why was the beating so severe? What other factors played into the situation? Chances are that the excessive violence had little to do with corporal punishment and a lot to do with the perpetrator’s unworthiness.

In better schools, not necessarily elite public schools, such excesses are almost unheard of. These schools use a range of punishments and positive reinforcements as part of their educational approach. Depending upon the infraction, different strategies are applied; punishment could range from writing impositions, standing facing a wall, loss of privileges, verbal admonishment, detention, kneeling down, and, as a last resort, caning. Schools have, until now, worked on the English common law principle of in loco parentis, that is, the school acts in the place of a parent in a child’s best interests. Children have a fiduciary relationship with their parents, which the school takes over while the child remains on campus. It is with this understanding that teachers discipline their wards. Interference in this system, however well-intentioned, weakens the teacher’s authority over the children and has a generally negative fallout.

One aspect of this negative fallout is that teachers, too afraid to even speak harshly to students, stop caring. If a ninth grader is caught smoking or bullying, many teachers prefer to look the other way, for there is little else they can do. Scolding or caning is now unacceptable, and parents blame the school for ineffective discipline if called in by the principal. If a student does not do the homework assigned, teachers hesitate to raise their voices for fear of administrative consequences against them. If a child fails a test, parents blame the teachers and the school – the onus for poor academic achievement has now passed entirely onto teachers but they are not allowed a free hand in their task. As a result, many teachers have thrown the responsibility of caring for the children back onto the parents – they suffer the children for the few hours they are in school and then send them back home, regardless of whether they have learned anything or not.

My school had its annual reunion for Old Boys recently. Students who had graduated over 25 years ago attended, as did a few who had finished high school barely five years ago. As we walked through the campus, we reminisced about our bygone immortality – successes, triumphs, disappointments, friendships, rivalries, crushes. We remembered our teachers, the sweet ones as well as the strict ones, and who had been caught and punished for what offence. My bête noire had been French literature – it takes a lot to make an eighth grader translate four to six pages of Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, or Gustave Flaubert thrice a week, and I was caned with a bamboo stick on my palms quite regularly. Today, I thank him for forcibly exposing me to the arts; in the ‘PCM’ culture of India, I might have well lost out on the beauty of life. I was not the only one who felt this way – not one of us harboured any resentment; in fact, we were thankful for the tough love we received in our formative years. In fact, many of us actively sought out a few teachers who had retired and were too old to come to the reunion but were living in the vicinity. Many remembered our names (and even embarrassing stories of mischief we committed!) and inquired with interest about our careers and families. Just this weekend, my father’s school celebrated a 50th year reunion for his batch. Interestingly, his experience at the reunion was a mirror image of the reunion at my school.

One thing that is lost in the talk of all this violence against children is the love and care teachers also show their wards – or used to before the new science of parenting kicked in. One parent told me of an incident that happened in his school: it was the late 1950s and the heyday of Nehruvian deprivation. One of his classmates in the eighth grade, whose family were recent refugees from Kashmir, had fallen on very hard times and one day just stopped coming to school. After a few days, the headmaster visited their home, and the teary-eyed boy told him that they could not afford to pay the school fees anymore. After a moment of thinking, the teacher replied, “Don’t worry – I’ll pay your fees from now until you can afford them again.”

I have heard and seen many such stories, but they do not make the newspaper headlines as we have become connoisseurs of misery and prurience. There used to be a time when teachers cared above and beyond the call of duty, but I am not sure if those teachers exist any more – new-fangled, legally heavy theories of parenting and school discipline have made them an endangered species. Parenting – be it at home or at school – is an ocean of gray. Trying to create legal boundaries in this is an asinine project at best, and the first signs of failure are already showing as more and more neighbours (rarely the parents, for as they say in Marathi, aaple cha brihaspathi, doosra cha shemda!) are wondering when children became so rude and irreverent.

Only experts can mess things up so badly, and somewhere down the line, schools became glorified daycare centres. Parents are too busy with their careers and social service agenda to be parents; the school’s role is now to keep the young ones off the streets for a few hours a day and serve as someone to blame for academic and social failure of the children. Not only has there been a crackdown on corporal punishment, but the new fad is to do away with examinations until a later age lest poor performance damage a child’s fragile psychological state. One brave Bangalore school which did away with any sort of examinations until the eight grade and retains students in the same year only if they fail five or more subjects has seen the number of failures in the eighth grade balloon from around three two decades ago to about 25 now.

Education is not the issue in this post, but this example also underscores how the new agenda undermines in children not only a healthy respect of authority but also the law of consequences. Actions have consequences, and some actions have severe consequences. If school were merely a matter of trigonometry, Shakespeare, and Shivaji, they would not be needed, for all those would be available at the corner library. Schools teach children something more – values. They teach children appropriate social interaction; they inculcate morals such as not cheating, with punishment if necessary; they also impart, through peers or teachers, an understanding of the consequences of violating norms of acceptable behaviour. At 13, I might have got away without doing my French homework, but at 23, my boss will not operate under the same kid gloves rules and have no compunction in firing me. If schools are not allowed to prepare children for life, then what is their purpose?

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that psychology is not a strict science, its claims that corporal punishment and failing in competitions at a young age would be hurtful to a child is not evident in millions of people who grew up in such systems. What seems to matter is that previous generations of students knew that the punishment they received from teachers or parents was out of a desire to improve them, not hurt them. It is that unconditional acceptance and love from our family that is the key to healthy development of a child; a spanking for stealing candy becomes immaterial.

There is indeed a danger of violence beyond the realm of discipline, but to abandon corporal punishment instead of addressing other issues seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If spanking is seen as an indicator of severity of the infraction and a child feels confident that it is loved, there is little problem. However, if the child is affected by a dysfunctional relationship between its parents, bias in school, or any other such problem, even a minor reprimand could have magnified consequences. Is the assault on corporal punishment a convenient scapegoat to hide our own failures as parents and human beings?