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Drop the cane and listen!

In my last blog I commented on the call for virtuous behaviour and reliable role models in troubled times. My example then was the financial crisis but I would like to continue this theme as I believe I have spotted a similar move in another area; namely the upbringing of children. Anti-social behaviour among the young is a big problem in society today and the standard response has been more control and stricter rules. In his new book psychologist Stephen Briers begs to differ.

Briers, endorsing a cognitive behavioural approach, argues that the best way to help children to become well-adjusted and happy persons is to teach them the skills they need to understand themselves. Very briefly, the strategy is to leave the traditional behaviouristic approach with its focus on control behind and instead seek to communicate, spend time with and really listen to the child. Instilling empathy and emotional intelligence is key as “Children who are emotionally literate, who demonstrate a high capacity for empathy and have social-problem solving skills tend to be protected from all manner of mental health problems” Briers explains. One recommended way to do this is to teach the child about role models. To use concrete examples like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, and discuss how various character traits such as altruism can come to express themselves. Clearly, helping the child to internalise these traits and skills takes a long time, and, moreover, it is an on-going process.
In, what seems to me a similar vein, Labour chairman of the Commons Health Committee Kevin Barron, backed by some 100 backbench Labour MPs, recently called for a ban on smacking children. Under the current legislation (last debate in 2004) parents have a right to punish their children physically given that they restrict themselves to ‘reasonable chastisement’.  Due to time constraints the proposal was never even discussed and thus
failed without a vote. Not one to be deterred, however, MP Barron determinedly commented "The issue won’t go away. This is something many of us feel concerned about." 

Although very positive if true – different polls seem to reach different results – the mere fact that ‘many’ might be in favor of a ban should not give rise to any normative conclusions. In other words – the fact that people happen to think something doesn’t make it right. As argued by Mr. Barron, the ‘Children are Unbeatable! Alliance’ and others, smacking a child is wrong because it is a violation of a set of fundamental human rights. If we continue to deny children these rights and the protection that comes with them, while readily recognizing them in adults, we are effectively degrading them to second class citizens.

Going back to Dr. Briers’ recommendations, it seems that a much more plausible way forward is to teach our children empathy and communication. ““Behavior will at some level be a communication,” he explains, “it has meaning, it has context.” A parent’s job is to show the child how to join the dots. “How you interpret a situation is going to determine how you feel about it and what you do about it.””
  Article in the guardian 04.10.08

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