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.