12 Angry Men debate this age-old aphorism; has child discipline had its day?
Spare the rod, spoil the child – is discipline, or even corporal punishment, lacking in modern society? And do you believe that kids are too spoilt these days?
JOE: “Absolutely. When you walk into a house during the festive season, and you see a pile of presents, which are hastily ripped open and then cast aside and ignored – it’s unbelievable. They don’t appreciate what they get or have and they don’t respect any of their elders in society, they mock the elderly. It’s a real pleasure these days if you meet a child who has manners and is well behaved – the sort who would send thank you letters or even emails.”
Does anyone have a more positive outlook?
JOHN: “I tend to agree with Joe to a large extent, but a very personal experience was different for me. I bought my granddaughter a laptop for her birthday, it was just a secondhand one from eBay, but to see the sheer delight on her face was priceless.”
PAUL: “I don’t believe it’s the children’s fault, to be honest. I think part of the attitude – not sending letters, taking things for granted – is actually down to the parents. But, with mass production culture, there is more of everything, so maybe that’s why kids aren’t as appreciative.”
SIMON H: “As parents, both of us believe in discipline and this included the very occasional, but certainly never severe, physical punishment, as our parents did to us. We haven’t, or had, any complaints about this, nor do our children – and don’t forget that children want discipline in their lives and are unhappy without it.”
PAUL: “They probably try to get their kids to write the thank you letters, and the children just say, ‘No, I’d rather be playing on my iPad.’”
JOHN: “My grandparents were from the Victorian era and I remember visiting them in the early 1950s. We’d walk into the house and everything was dark and quiet and we were expected to just sit there and not say anything.”
SIMON A: “Seen and not heard!”
JOHN: “I think of the way I was with my parents, who survived the Second World War, which changed many things. I think they had this feeling of, ‘We survived, the war’s over, let’s try and enjoy life a bit more’. And then, with my own children, it was even more relaxed. There were still boundaries that were set, but certainly less than 40 years before.”
SIMON H: “Today’s younger parents are much less disciplinarian, but there’s no doubt that in days gone by, they were probably too much the other way. Each new generation will always change things and I have no problem with discipline methods changing whatsoever – until they don’t work – then the successful practices of the past should be looked at once again.”
Do you think those points are skills that are lacking in modern parenting?
CLIVE: “I think it’s a reflection of society. If you look at where we are today, vis-à-vis where we were 50 years ago, society expects a lot more, in terms of materialistic things, than most of us around this table. It really is a reflection of our society, changing over the generations, and not in the best way.”
JOE: “How many times have you seen or read about parents getting themselves into debt just so they can buy their kids expensive presents, or ridiculous prom dresses, or just so they can have a 50-inch TV on the wall.”
JOHN: “That’s right. I don’t recall, 40 years ago, ‘I’ve got to have those designer clothes, that designer footwear.’”
JOE: “Yes, definitely, and I think it’s getting worse.”
SIMON H: “All these comments are true of a considerable sector of society. I think the solution is about education and, of course, this has to be led by the parents. One problem is that a massive number of parents themselves need educating!”
Do you think children expect materialistic gratification due to a lack of discipline?
SIMON A: “One problem I’ve seen with some parents is they try and be friends with their children rather than being the disciplinarian – so they don’t have that level of respect from them when they tell them off. Sometimes I realise, with my own children, that I have to be tougher and say, ‘I am not your friend. I am your father. I love you dearly, and I’m going to say things to you that your friends wouldn’t say to you.’”
HONEY: “I think it’s a framework thing, a reaction to how we were brought up, maybe your family didn’t have as much time to spend with you due to work. I didn’t have that strong, bonding relationship with my father as he was busy working, so now I think it’s a case of trying to give the kids what I never had. However, I think by being friendly and lovey-dovey with them we give out mixed messages, especially when they get older and start pushing the boundaries.
ROY: “I think children have too much power these days. The schools can’t discipline them properly and the parents don’t back the teachers up – they’re more likely to go in and complain.”
Is a lack of discipline in educational institutions having a knock-on effect?
ROY: “Yes, because the teachers are scared now. I think they’d be too worried about the parents accusing them of smacking their child.”
CLIVE: “Well, the teachers aren’t allowed to discipline, are they?”
DAVID: “Yes, you’ve got to be a lot softer in teaching now. You mustn’t say to a child, ‘You’ve done that wrong’, you have to say, ‘That’s not entirely right!’”
GRAHAM: “Negative language isn’t allowed!”
DAVID: “I’ve got friends who are teachers and they’re specifically taught to do that now.”
JOE: “If the kids are going to cope with disappointment in life, they’ve got to start young. It’s a learned ability really, and they’re not going to get that by being spoilt. They need to learn to think for themselves. In today’s society, we mollycoddle them terribly.”
ROY: “They need discipline to learn how far they can go in their behaviour – it’s the discipline that gives them boundaries.”
SIMON H: “The whole education thing has fallen apart. Parents need to understand that discipline is the spine of education and that they should allow teachers to use their common sense and discipline when and where they think necessary.”
PAUL: “I think one of the problems is that both parents have to work and so that can lead to a guilt-trap. They buy them more things as they feel guilty for not being there, so, in a way, they buy the love.”
And spoil the child…
PAUL: “And spoil the child, exactly.”
Who here was disciplined as a child? Can you remember any specific examples, for better or for worse, that have stayed with you?
GRAHAM: “I think the answer there is, yes! But it’s interesting what was said, thinking back to the 1950s and 1960s, my mum was at home and my dad was at work – so if me or my sister were naughty, there was always that threat…”
EVERYONE IN UNISON: “Wait until your dad gets home!”
GRAHAM: “And, when your dad got back, there was always the knowledge that you would get disciplined – nothing bad, just some sort of corporal punishment, a smack or something.”
SIMON H: “I was certainly disciplined as a child. I would be sent to my room, smacked on the back of my thighs. I received the cane at school, for getting caught dropping a number of other classmates’ satchels out of the fourth-floor windows.”
PHIL: I was disciplined at home and at school. It re-enforced the fact the doing wrong is not acceptable.”
And has it done you any harm?
GRAHAM: “Not at all! I remember when I was in school and got in some fracas or other and we got sent to see the headmistress and she got the ruler out. Did it do me any harm? No, of course not.”
SIMON A: “For me, none whatsoever; in fact, the complete opposite. I realised that I deserved what I got and that the punishment was the result of the crime.” (general agreement)
So, what would you say that instilled in you?
CLIVE: “Fear!” (general laughter)
GRAHAM: “I think what it does instil in you is a sense of boundaries and how far you can take things. With kids these days there’s no definitive line for them to cross so they just push and push.”
ROY: “I once got the cane at school and it taught me a lesson and after that I was scared of the teachers – nowadays the kids just aren’t. The cane didn’t do me any harm… although I don’t know what it was for. I forget now!”
PHIL: “It taught me to reflect on my behaviour – or make sure I didn’t get caught!” (general laughter)
ROY: “I remember having to write out 100 times, ‘I mustn’t do this again!’ They don’t do that anymore do they? Make you write lines?”
JOE: “See, I went to boarding school, and the discipline there was completely remote from anything else. We had the strap, the slipper, the slap round the face…” (everyone winces)
We all had a reaction to the mention of the ‘slap round the face’ then, it is obvious to see that there are certain socially acceptable levels of corporal punishment…
CLIVE: “The book round the back of the head.”
JOE: “You used to get your ears pulled if you weren’t listening.”
PAUL: “Pulled up by the ears, yep – and the book.”
SIMON A: “Chalk thrown at you.”
GRAHAM: “Or the board rubber!”
SIMON H: “I remember the ‘board rubber’ quite clearly. It was, in fact, a heavy lump of timber!
Would you be comfortable with your own children being dealt with in that manner?
SIMON A: “Yes, depending on what they’d done! If the punishment was equal to the misbehaviour, then fine. And I’d hope that I would back the teacher up in that. I hope I wouldn’t be the kind of parent that would go in and complain and say, ‘How dare you touch my darling.’”
JOHN: “My granddaughter tells me that, at her school, it’s known that drugs are available. I think back to the 1950s and at grammar school – I just wonder what the punishment would have been.”
CLIVE: “I would imagine, ring squad!”
JOHN: “So, I asked what happens when they get caught. Well, they get suspended for three or four weeks! That, to me, does not seem anywhere near the kind of punishment someone should get for something that bad.”
ROY: “I’d go to the police.”
SIMON H: “Disrespect of the law and the police themselves, any authority, the elderly, the infirm, rules and procedures, is again down to the parents. The media do not help either, TV programs are full of disrespect of the police and the law and set a dire example.”
ROY: “Maybe the police would scare them enough?”
DAVID: “I don’t think they do get scared these days though. My son when he was quite younger, once said, ‘If you carry on, I’m going to report you.’”
JOHN: “You were infringing on his human rights!”
JOE: “He should become a barrister.”
HONEY: “They’re well informed these days, right? I had exactly the same thing with my daughter – all of a sudden they know their rights!”
Does that limit a parent’s disciplinary powers?
HONEY: “We try and bring our kids up to be smarter – which is great, but now, all of a sudden, they know everything. However, there has to be a consistent way that you administer the boundaries. You want to be a friend to them because you want them to come to you and tell you anything, but at the same time you’ve got to be a parent, so it’s hard to avoid these mixed messages.”
JAMIE: “I agree about the mixed messages. I think the whole thing is a bit of a Daily Mail headline actually, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’. What’s the contemporary interpretation? The cane? A stair rod… Which hurts slightly more, I can assure you! I think that children have to have boundaries, and that’s something my wife and I have been careful with – what on earth can they rebel against later in life if they don’t have something to step over? But, you have to give a child the tools that, if he or she comes off the rails, they can climb back up the bank and get on the rails again. If the parents send them messages that are confused, then they are never going to know where they stand.”
SIMON H: “Boundaries are very important but, unfortunately, there are a huge number of uneducated, unsuitable and irresponsible parents out there – god help the poor kids!”
Does the ‘buck stop’ with the parents?
JAMIE: “It has to! The parents have reproduced – if they don’t want to take responsibility why are they having the children in the first place?”
JOE: “Yes, good question.”
PHIL: “Parents must take more responsibility for their children.”
JAMIE: “And just to go back to the statement that some parents want to be the child’s friend – well, that is the grossest mixed message that a parent can offer. What on earth is a school supposed to do if the parent wants to be the child’s friend? They have to take the parents’ role and support the school.”
What would you say is the most effective way of setting boundaries for a child?
CLIVE: “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, the old ways were so much better.’”
JOE: “They were – it worked!”
CLIVE: “But, nevertheless, there was discipline. And today we live in a society that’s very weak on discipline and everybody gets affected by it. Today’s children are a reflection of society and society has brought us to where we are today – and not for the better.”
JAMIE: “It isn’t for the better.”
JOHN: “I made the mistake of getting on a bus recently, at end-of-school-time, and there was a gang of kids on there, and the language was just appalling – and with the knife culture you hear about, you’re almost afraid to turn around and say to them, ‘Do you mind? There’s other people on this bus’. I don’t think that would have happened 30 or 40 years ago.”
JAMIE: “To be fair, I think it would have. But the difference is the other people on the bus, and the driver and the conductor, they would have supported you.”
Speaking of responsibility, do you think the dissolution of the nuclear family has had an impact on discipline?
ROY: “I think it has. More couples divorce and the kids are in split families.”
SIMON A: “Yes, I would say so. Respect for your father, your teacher, and in fact anyone in society. I think the breakdown of the family is key.”
DAVID: “Going by my own experience – no one prepared me for being a dad. I’ve just tried to do my best, and I’ve always tried to explain, rather than chastise, my kids. I’ve never had need to smack my daughter, but my son… let’s just say he was a bit more difficult. But, I only ever smacked him once – and that was when he went, ‘Wanker!’ (general laughter) “And I took exception to that. But, he’s never done it since.”
JOE: “He was testing you!”
SIMON H: “I think the break-up of the traditional family has certainly had a large and negative impact on discipline – but if the controlling parent is educated and knows what is right and what is wrong and passes these views and actions down to their children, then things should turn out okay.”
So, what are the alternatives to smacking ? Do you think that new parents should be taught parenting skills?
JOHN: “I suspect the kind of children we are talking about, if the parents are, in the main, to blame for it, then those parents are not likely to take on board any of that kind of education.”
CLIVE: “How do you control bad parenting?”
JOHN: “There’s got to be penalties for bad behaviour. Maybe in the past it was smacking, but there still has to be some form of penalty.”
LIVE: “I think if you have children, but then abdicate on setting rules for your children, on setting those boundaries, then you are abdicating on being a parent.”
JOHN: “Well, I can give you an example of the ultimate penalty for a child of today’s generation! My fifteen-year-old granddaughter had a party when the parents were away, and obviously the house was a mess when they came back. So, what did they do? They took away the phone, took away the laptop – any form of communication with the outside world – was taken away for three months. And, in that three months, her school ability increased because she was focusing on school, she wasn’t constantly texting or using Facebook. That was one of the best penalties to give to a kid of that age, just take away any kind of social technology.”
So, to remove her social networking ability was an extremely effective way of punishing her?
JOHN: “Oh yes.”
SIMON A: “So, your children had to be very strong and united to be able to do that.”
JOHN: “It was totally in unison.”
SIMON H: “That, I think, is key.”
PAUL: “That sounds pretty unique! You really have to be as one on these things.”
PHIL: “The parents need to act together and agree suitable levels.”
JAMIE: “What’s happened there is that the parents have united, and effected together, a punishment. Also, a lack of social interaction, for children, is a very big thing.”
GRAHAM: “And also that child knows that, if it happens again, there’s going to be punishment and that punishment will stick.”
The 12 Angry Men comment:
Spare the rod, spoil the child? Society’s tastes have changed over the years. Corporal punishment of all kinds has gone out of fashion in the West, at least among the more affluent. Few educated, middle-class people would defend beating as a method of dealing with bad behaviour, whether at home or in school. Even smacking is becoming socially unacceptable. In Slap, a novel by the Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, a man becomes the focus of intense debate when he smacks a naughty three-year-old at a barbecue. Some onlookers think he is justified, while others want to call the police.
My view is that smacking is okay, provided the child is not injured in any way. This principle was enshrined in the 2004 Children’s Act, which allows parents to use “reasonable force” but makes it illegal to hit a child if it causes bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches. That rules out the cane or the strap. The objection to corporal punishment is that it is too draconian. It risks causing permanent harm to children, as well as demeaning the adult carrying it out. The debate is often framed in terms of conflicting evidence. Opponents claim it does lasting psychological damage and cite case studies in which adults beaten as children suffer from various mental disorders, including depression. Those in favour cite declining standards of behaviour, both at home and in the classroom, and regard the phasing out of corporal punishment as part of a pattern in which society has become more permissive and authority less respected.
This latter argument often finds favour with religious conservatives, whether Christian or Muslim. For them, respect for authority is essential if their faith and the traditions associated with it are to survive. Often, they do not simply condone the beating of children, but the beating of wives, too – such is the power vested in the patriarchal head of the family.
To my mind, the issue does not turn on evidence, but on straightforward morality. Adults who are entrusted with looking after children, whether parents or teachers, have a duty to protect them from harm. That responsibility trumps all others, including teaching them to obey the rules. The only circumstances in which it is acceptable to smack children is to punish them for harming others or for engaging in the sort of behaviour that might prove harmful to themselves, such as running across the road without looking. Merely being angry with a child – because they continually out your authority, for instance – is not justification enough.
Of course, it is not always easy to stick to that principle. As the father of four children, including three boys aged ten and under, I sometimes have to exercise superhuman restraint. I find it hard not to retaliate if they kick or punch me as hard as they can, particularly in the testicles. But I know that if I hit them back I will end up hurting them as much as they have hurt me and, as a father, it is my job to teach them that there are better ways to settle disputes than resorting to violence.
In my experience, confiscating their screens is a much more effective punishment than giving them a smack on the bottom! – Toby Young
The 12 Angry Men are…
Simon Hudson, 67, retired hospitality director from Buckinghamshire
Graham Stern, 62, chartered accountant from Essex
Jamie Hill, 58, business owner from London
Simon Arenson, 50, charity director from London
Paul Mitchell, 52, chartered surveyor from Hertfordshire
David Gilbert, 58, pharmacist from Essex
Joe Schneider, 70, retired logistics controller from Hertfordshire
Roy Ellis, 75, retired printing agent from Hertfordshire
Clive Levy, 58, construction director from Essex
Honey Patel, 52, ICT director from London
John Gould, 65, charity director from Middlesex
Phil Beckett, 63, retired company secretary from London