TO CANE OR NOT TO CANE
.... or to Fay or not to Fay
NOTE; Several years ago, Michael Fay an American teen-ager, then living in Singapore with his parents, was "caned" when he was found guilty of vandalizing a car that was parked in a public place. On the throes of that famous case, I delivered this speech to the Filipino-American Association of Coachella Valley. As a practicing pediatrician, I feel that the topic of corporal punishment is as relevant today( and will be tomorrow) as it was then.
By some accounts, the American cultural bias against corporal punishment started to take root only at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century when Dr. Benjamin Spock published his seminal book on child rearing. In it, he debunked what he thought was a misguided idea, succinctly expressed in the aphorism: "Spare the rod, spoil the child." He insisted that parents, as the authority figure in the family, could still firmly and effectively define for their children what is and what is not acceptable behavior without resorting to physical force. This new paradigm in child rearing was somewhat of an eye-opener for most American parents at the time, and they embraced it with great enthusiasm. Now, six decades later, Dr. Spock's idea had become widely disseminated in the American cultural landscape.
Into this landscape the Filipino emigrant family walked with not a hint of hesitation, and promptly found itself mired in innumerable socio-cultural predicaments. In its attempts to enmesh as effortlessly as it could into the American cultural fabric, it discarded along the way some long held ideas, ideals, and even ideologies. To the extent that this integration into American society was done without much trauma to their collective psyche, a lot of Filipino families succeeded far beyond their initial intent--- except in the area of what Filipino parents still strongly believe as their singular duty, that is, to instill in their children the value of discipline for discipline's sake, by meting out appropriate corporal punishments for particular offenses. It has therefore become a constant source of frustration to Filipino parents who are used to imposing bodily punisments in some form, that here in America they are restricted or worse, prevented from apportioning these forms of punishments in their efforts to disciplne their children.
One of the major reasons, I think, for this abhorrence of physical punishment as a way of disciplining children, is the notion that there is but a thin line that separates it from child abuse. This not not too difficult to understand considering the danger that if done in anger, the inflicting of bodily pain could lead to parental loss of control, and then to unintended but nonetheless severe physical and psychological harm to the child. One does not have to be a raging Freudian to realize that bodily punishment when inflicted in anger by an adult leads to feelings of extreme fright and shame on the part of the child. If done repeatedly, the child then becomes anesthesized to the physical pain; he cries not out of deep remorse or inconsolable anguish but of desperate loneliness and helplessness. Severe repeated physical punishment is ultimately self-defeating because it wraps the child around an ever tightening and constricting coccon of anger, shame, and fear.
The pertinent question therfore arises--- are the parents wise enough and prudent enough about discipline that they do not mistake corporal punishment for anything else but a way for them to inculcate in their children clear concepts of right and wrong, reward and punishment? Parents naturally equate punishment with discipline, but while punishment is part of it, a much more important aspect of discipline is love. Affection and caring form the core of any parent-child relationship, and they play a central role in shaping a child's behavior. The parent's consistent example of fairness, devotion, and certitude teach their children to become honest, and giving, and hardworking themselves. The control parents show in helping their children to learn right from wrong serves as a model for the self-discipline they develop later on.
Filipino parents believe that they are in control, so to speak, and they do not go beyond what is necessary to impress upon their misbehaving brood why they are being punished. Thus physical force used fittingly in those situations becomes an instrument to hone the children's sense of belonging in a structured and disciplined family unit. Therefrom emanates the dilemma--- that having decided to live in a country where corporal punishment is frowned upon, Filipino parents must now walk the gaunt line without ever so much as tripping into the abyss of child abuse and the resulting legal entaglements that might potentially unhinge the anchoring function of disciplne on their family's carefully nurtured unity.
The question of whether or not to "spare the rod" has become a conundrum that few Fipilino parents have so far been able to deal with adequately, given the current and continuing licentiousness and permissiveness of American society. Filipino parents could only cringe in despair when they realize they could not insulate from the corrosive effects of such overindulgence, the ideals of discipline and family unity they have spent so much time and effort driving into the minds of their children.
I certainly share the hope of Filipino parents that their use of corporal punishment as a way of disciplining their children would be seen by Americans and their legal system in a more favorable light.