The Slap

Shared values are what hold communities together.

But what happens when attitudes change and we can’t continue to rely on shared values – particularly on important issues like the education and upbringing of our children?

Anyone having read Christos Tsiolkas’ book The Slap (or seen the recent film) will appreciate the potential repercussions of hitting a child – especially where social differences and cultural ambiguities exist around the discipline of children.

When I started teaching, corporal punishment in UK schools was still legal – and before you ask, this wasn’t the Victorian era. You may even think me totally wicked but I admit I handed out a few slaps myself during that time – usually on the back of the hand but occasionally on the back of the legs too. I operated a ‘three fair warnings policy’ – when they were used up, the child got “licks” (as Hackney kids called it in those days).

At the time I was convinced the odd slap here and there stopped a lot of ‘short-term nonsense’ and ‘low-level disruption’. It appeared to me to have a marked effect on my ability to maintain effective classroom discipline, without any apparent psychological or physical harm to the child. I can’t remember any child visibly bearing a grudge on the basis of a slapped hand.

Indeed, it seemed to me quite the opposite – invariably a child would be all smiles a couple of minutes later. The incident and the punishment seemed to have been put behind us both without a grudge. In my mind, they had been given a clear message. They had gone beyond the warning signs and reached my limit. Now they were clear where that limit was.

After a few years, the law changed and somehow I managed to be a reasonable teacher without ever slapping children again. Though unashamed of my past, I seamlessly developed perfectly effective techniques for managing classroom discipline. I became equally convinced that the violence I had once condoned and practised was utterly indefensible.

How easily we can change our minds, when we have to.

Then one day, as a headteacher, I had to call in the parents of a ten-year old boy who had cynically abused his teacher. In spite of being a wonderfully creative, experienced and sympathetic teacher she had been driven to tearful distraction. For whatever reason, on this particular day he put reason beyond her reach and pursued his whimsical entertainment with impudence and then insolence, extending to verbal torment and finally culminating in a gesture of announcing to the class that he thought his teacher was ‘just a stupid fucking bitch.’

I knew from reputation that West African parents take a very strict line on disciplining their children. The mere fact that I had told the boy I’d called his father was enough to stop him in his tracks.

The father was a partner in a large accountancy firm in the City of London. His time was precious, to say the least, but he left work immediately to come straight to the school by home-time. He entered my office, saw his son standing with his head bowed, looked at me and began to cry.

I began explaining why it had been necessary to call him but he stopped me. “You don’t have to explain anything Sir. I quite understand. I come here to apologise for my son and to ask your forgiveness. He will be punished – very, very severely.”

He turned to his son and told him to get down on his knees and beg the forgiveness of his teachers. To my embarrassment, the boy did. I thanked the father for his support but said it was not necessary for the boy prostrate himself. Oh yes it is Sir” he said, and then shouted at his son: “Beg! Beg! Beg your teachers’ forgiveness!”

Then he pulled his son to his feet and slapped him, very hard, across the face.

I insisted that he stop and that I could not allow him to do that. But the father turned to me, visibly angry and with tears now dripping from his eyes he said:

“You English people, you don’t understand. You think because I hit my son, I don’t love him? I love my son! I love my son! But he must learn right from wrong. And when he does wrong, he must feel the pain that doing wrong causes other people. That is our way. But you English people you do not understand that.”

We had no reason to complain about the boy’s behaviour after that.

But a couple of months later, the father came in again to tell me that he was taking his son out of the school. “I’m sending him back home to get his education” he said. After expressing my surprise and disappointment I asked why. “Because he will get a better education Sir. Back home, children are taught discipline and respect as well as knowledge.”

I wasn’t sure that was true. But I had no answer for him.

What’s yours?




10 thoughts on “The Slap

  1. Really enjoyed reading this, lots to think about. My response would be that his way teaching discipline and respect is based on fear, whereas the UK system is based on trust and fairness. Though put in the heat of the moment unsure if I would have responded this way. Highlights the differences between cultures.

    1. Thanks James – glad you enjoyed it. I agree – it is interesting the contrast in cultural expectations and the values associated with those. I also agree that the UK ‘system’ (if that’s what we can call it) tries to reflect trust and fairness, but I think what unnerved me about the incident was that I thought the father had lost faith in the ability of teachers in the UK education system to instill a sense of trust and fairness in young people generally and his son in particular – and that was deeply disturbing to me because the grain of truth that lies within. Thanks for again for posting and your kind words.

  2. When I took a required course in Hawaii to teach in public school, I was surprised that we were continually told, tested, and asked if we would “hit: a child in different circumstances. I was not surprised. It is not legal in Hawaii for teachers to discipline by hitting. But I was surprised at the important place it took in our studies until I started teaching. Hawaiian and local parents are very hands on with discipline and sometimes it comes with swearing and violence. It is part some kind of the culture. As a teacher, I experienced what it did to children. Beating And swearing at them taught them to be violent and to swear at their kids ( and they got angy and swore at me the teacher) This is why the Deparment of Education had to retrain the culture not to hit when provoked. Many employees including teachers were fired for lashing out as an automatic reflex when being disrespected by a student.
    I don’t think it does a child or dog well to hit them.Local people until very recently beat their dogs on a regular basis. This is a hard topic because one “tick” in love or spanking and being slapped across the face or in a recent news story, a judge whipping his daughter who has cerebal palsy with a strap for many minutes is way different. This was not in Hawaii One Might? be helpful, the other is violent and abuse and is good only to teach chidren big people can hit smaller people and men should hit women, and vice versa but here in Hawaii it is mostly the woman who dies due to domestic violence. In the local culture domestic ,including child abuse is very high, though violence in general is lower than average.Every parent has to make the decision to spank or not to spank. I don’t think teachers should have to make that decision and I am glad it is taken out of our hands. aloha

    1. Thanks for that post marilynmendoza – it’s interesting to hear the perspective from Hawaii – thanks.

      I think you have touched on a very important point – the differences between the rights and privileges that parents (as opposed to teachers) have in disciplining their children. Teachers of course, have an ‘authority’ invested in them by society that carries special responsibilities and powers – which must not be abused.

      And I agree – it’s better teachers do not have to make a decision about it, but in this case, the parent had lost confidence in the ‘authority’ of the teachers and the education system to safeguard his child’s interests. It is a conundrum I still haven’t resolved…

      Thanks again for your post!

  3. I am not sure it is true either. Dishing out beatings and demanding respect do not really instill discipline and respect.

    Having said that our culture does seem to have a very lax attitude towards respect and discipline. Children get mixed messages about what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour, through TV, music, magazines etc. In schools we try to develop children’s critical thinking skills and we expect them to question why and how things happen and work which is all very laudable but if a child does not know where the boundaries of good manners are they can easily overstep the mark and quickly become disrespectful and rude.

    The father was deeply embarrassed by his son’s behaviour and felt that it reflected badly on him. Am I being simplistic when I wonder if his reaction is due to his upbringing in his culture? Was it lack of confidence that prevented him working in partnership with you, or arrogance, or self preservation? Or possibly just a lack of respect?

    It truly is a conundrum, one I would think that will be very difficult to resolve!

    1. Thanks for that Gill – I think your post does reflect the conundrum I found myself in and I agree, it is a genuine one. What made it worse was that I don’t think the father was reacting out of embarrassment, lack of confidence or frustration. I truly believe he felt that this was an appropriate punishment – he said “He must feel pain when he does wrong, then he will know the difference between right and wrong.”

      I do think that sometimes there are genuine clashes of cultural values that force us to reflect on what we are trying to do and what we are actually achieving as teachers – and this wa sa case in point.

      Thanks again for your reflection – I think it added a lot to the piece.

  4. One of the reasons the Victoria Climbie abuse was not picked up sooner, was because Social Services witnessed her standing to attention, from her sick bed in hospital, when her Aunt (her abuser) came in and put it down to their customs and traditions.

    The child in ‘The Slap’ is the type of child we come across occasionally these days; the child who is indulged, not disciplined and allowed to do whatever they please. One child I came across, disrupted lessons daily to the detriment of 29 other children, and were frequently hurt by him. The mother would stay in school for the duration the child was there, so that SHE could restrain him, if necessary. On one occasion, he threw a chair at the TA, threw two pencils with precise aim at my eye, threw a tray of pens at a child as they evacuated the room. Four children were crying and the TA was bruised. At no point did I ask this child to do anything. He just did it because he could and he knew he could.

    The mother came rushing down the corridor to the now completely trashed classroom and flung her arms around him and asked him who had upset him. It was only when she entered the room did the child start to shout – he had been completely silent and calm up to then. She took over the classroom, reading her son a story to ‘calm’ him. She took him home with a promise of McDonalds as he ‘needed a treat, as he had had such a bad day’. She did not tidy up or offer to help. She did not apologise for disruption or upset caused to the 29 other children. Nor did she ask her son to apologise. This is as bad, if not worse than what that boy said to his teacher.

    Children need need boundaries and they need to know right and wrong. What is to become of the child who trashed the classroom? What is he going to grow into? This child will be out there one day.
    There has to be a middle ground. How sad for this boy, who was slapped by his father. As he said he did it out of love, it is ‘their way’. If it was reactive,a one-off, then perhaps the boy will have learned his lesson. However, if it is regular, consistent and pre-meditated and down to their beliefs and customs then it is abuse, regardless of religion/ custom. Like the undisciplined child, what will become of him?

    1. Thanks marymc – that’s a brilliant post and describes perfectly the cleft-stick that teachers, parents and children themselves find themselves in when boundaries are unclear, confused or ambiguous either by the lack of personal direction given by a parent or teacher or the lack of general direction afforded by cultural norms and mores.

      I completely agree – institutional and systematic violence that is pre-meditated and calculated is completely beyond the pale, but I am still confused by the kind of slap (even quite a hard one) administered by a parent who clearly loves his child and is trying their best to steer him away from the path of wrong-doing.

      It’s a real conundrum I think – and your post has illustrated that even further – so thanks again for it. It was excellent.

  5. Great article. It makes you question your principles and beliefs. I believe that the father wanted his child’s upbringing to be similar to his. Perhaps he was afraid of his child being spoiled. Anyway, it is a very complex case, and any analysis that I can make runs the risk of being oversimplistic.
    Thought-provoking piece, indeed.

    1. Thanks for that Charu. I agree – complex issues defy simplistic analysis but I’m so glad it gave you something to think about. I also agree that the father wanted something similar for his child, but in this case I think it was ‘values’, rather than ‘education’ – he clearly thought that migrating to London would provide him and his family with opportunities not available in West Africa – and he thought ‘a good education’ and ‘economic opportunities’ would be among them – but in the end I think he feared the loss of his own values being passed on to his son.

      Thanks for your post.

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