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I've been a naughty boy

2009-08-12 11:20

The investigation into corporal punishment and abuse at the private school, Cefups Academy in Nelspruit, got me thinking about my own childhood. When I was a kid, they had another term for child abuse. They called it "parenting".

Children were regarded more as property or pets than as people, so adults who made great husbands and wives could be surprisingly brutal as fathers and mothers. When I was about six or so we visited family friends – a couple and their young teen son. The father proudly showed us his sjambok, a huge black monster with a heavy grip, and a tip that tapered like a needle. This, he told us, was what he used to beat his boy.

His son – who looked like an adult to me, although he couldn't have been more than 14, sat staring at the floor, nodding slightly as his father demanded agreement that the sjambok was all he needed to keep his boy on the straight and narrow.

 On the way home, my father told me how lucky I was that he didn't have a sjambok, and I couldn't exactly argue that point. But even though I was a quiet kid, I was often contrary, sometimes truculent, but mostly just preoccupied and inattentive – so I got my fair share of hidings as my parents tried to beat a respect for authority into me – and even got others to do it for them.

When I was in standard two (grade 4), my mother went to my school and complained to my teacher that I wasn't getting beaten enough. After that meeting I was constantly getting my arse whacked with a ruler for not paying attention in class. So I doubled my efforts to look really, really interested in what she was saying while drawing pictures of the school building being blown up by space ships. This was years before Armageddon, by the way. I like to think I was ahead of my time.

Then I was sent to a Catholic boarding school for two years, where we were caned, beaten with leather straps, and sometimes just slapped, punched or kicked.  I remember watching one poor kid literally getting bashed over the head with a bible. I knew I shouldn't laugh, but there's comedy in cruelty.

In their efforts to turn me into a respectable young man, I was whacked an average of over 60 times per term. For two years my bum was a rainbow of colourful bruises. But as you can probably tell, even if you're just an occasional reader of this column, I'm one of corporal punishment's proud failures. I like to credit my strong sense of individualism, but nothing enforces the absurdity of authority quite like being severely beaten by a sexually deprived man in a dress.

Now, of course, everything's different. My youngest sister, born 11 years after me, wasn't beaten at all. Corporal punishment is now unconstitutional, and despite all the witnesses against him, the owner of Cefups is denying everything. That's quite a change from that crazy son of a bitch who was so proud of his sjambok.

And now that it's condemned as something shameful, parents – especially South African parents – have become very defensive of their right to give their little brats a sound snotklap when they've had it up to here.

The problem is that for every parent there's a different here, as well as a different definition of acceptable punishment.  For some, it's with a belt for talking back. For others, it's no XBox for a month for stealing the family car and driving it through a shopping mall window. For me, it's with a condom before the little bastards can even be conceived. Best method ever.

I'm not a parent, but if I had to draw the line where parenting ends and abuse begins, I'd draw it at the same place I do with my girlfriend. I wouldn't slap her around (against her will, that is), no matter what she did, so I probably wouldn't slap a child either.

Many argue that the beatings they received as a child were good for them, but since I don't see any perfect adults wondering about, or anyone asking to be regularly beaten by their spouses or bosses as part of a continued self-improvement strategy, I'm not buying it.

 Parents often cite their fallibility as humans, or their loss of control under the strain of their decision to breed, but I also can't help thinking that suppressing our violent urges helps define us as civilised. Of course kids can be horrible little shits – but that's how we know they're people.

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