Monday, October 26, 2015

“Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child”: On Spanking in the Nigerian Igbo community.

"Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child" 

Proclaimed in every Nigerian household, this phrase fosters an environment where children feel unsafe and demonized. Many times, we think what is normal is right or what is normal is good. We believe that because something happened to us, we should continue to do it. We share our collective stories of spanking , standing up with one foot, squatting for an hour, picking out a switch, using pepper on our bodies and think this is okay. Psychology has told us over and over again that negative reinforcement does not correct behavior yet we continue to believe it does. Psychology has told us that spanking or hitting your child has negative effects on their psyche and overall mental health.

While many Igbo names describe the value of a child, children are denied agency, autonomy, and humanity. Children are often viewed as property wherein parents have ownership over them. As the owner of property, parents can do whatever they want to their children. But, children are human beings not property. While age may be a marker of experience, age is not a marker of humanity. Rather than communicate with our children, we are quick to anger and violence. We instill fear in our children, which creates an unhealthy relationship between children and parents. Some children/adults say they have “ turned out fine” but what do we really mean by “ fine”?  It is similar to the hazing process for fraternities and sororities. We justify and rationalize unnecessary violence by saying “I went through it and I made it just fine”.

There are a million vines glorifying the abuse of children by adults. It is normal. We see Nigerian vines with children receiving a spanking for something as simple as taking a plate with their left hand. What is it that makes us so quick to violence? What is it that forces us out a dialogue and forces us towards violence? I firmly believe that our inclination to spank is a symptom of Post traumatic colonial stress disorder. This is not to say that flogging did not exist before the British came to Nigeria, but I do believe “flogging/spanking” was prominent under British rule.

Toyin Falola [ in Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria] explains the use of violence during colonial Nigeria,

“The goal for all of them was the same: colonial subjects had to respect the new colonial institutions and obey the officers appointed to run them. Respect had to be made visible and symbolic: in ways the officers were addressed and greeted and the speed at which instructions were carried out.” [sound familiar?]

 In 1908, the chief justice of Nigeria stated “ The only way to correct Black people was to flog them”. Falola asserts, “ Many officers regarded Africans as children who had to be lectured and flogged to get the best out of them and enable them to mature quickly” [sound familiar?] Furthermore, “ There was a connection between the stereotypes and violence: primitive Africans were conquered by guns and were expected to become economically productive by means of flogging, while those who were unredeemable were put into prison.”

Colonizers made examples out of elders who refused to accept the new structures of colonialism. They would flog chiefs and ridicule them in public, which would send a message to everyone not to “ act out of line”. “ Acting out of line” meant to go against colonization. “ Acting out of line” meant to resist, to speak out, to fight back. “Acting out of line” meant to question. "Acting out of line" meant to think freely. Flogging was a way to dehumanize Nigerians and force them to submit to colonial officers and appointed chiefs. 

In many ways we act as officers to our children. We often use the words “ discipline and obedience” to describe how our children should be but I find this problematic. Discipline and obedience are coded terms that only benefit those with power. We deny children curiosity and humanity when we tell them they are not allowed to question “authority”. We deny our children creativity when we tell them they must submit to " authority". Those with “ authority” are often the most likely to abuse others. Teachers, parents, and church leaders often use their “ authority” to exert power, control, and abuse.   

I think every human being deserves basic respect. Being a child does not make one less human. I understand respecting elders is very integral part of Igbo culture, but to what degree should we respect elders? If an elder is beating his wife, do we stay silent? If an elder is sexually harassing a young girl, do we stay silent? If an elder is repeating the mistakes of the past, do we accept it? At what point do we level down as human beings and have a conversation where all opinions are valued. While we had a council of elders in Igboland, elders were not the sole decision making body. In fact, we had/have multiple groups (men, women, and children). We had collective community engagement. And even if we did not, why do we assume that culture is stagnant? Why do we only hold on to culture when it only benefits those with power?

People create culture. Culture does not create people. If something is culture and it is wrong, then people have the ability to change it. Culture should adapt. Culture is a collection of common experiences, symbols, language, food, geography, expressions used to define a group of people. But culture can change and culture does change. That’s what makes us a better people.

As a stubborn child and adult, I know that no amount of beating will ever make me “ respect” someone. When I was spanked or beat, I simply found creative ways to hide things from my parents. Children should not be controlled. Children should not be treated as property. Children should be respected as human beings. Children should be listened to and talked to. Parents should want children to respect them as parents not fear them. Children make mistakes. Children are still growing. The worst thing we do to our children is make them feel a sense of guilt and shame [ post coming later about shame in the Nigerian community]. The worst thing we do to children is to make them feel as though they have no outlet. The worst thing we do to children is make them fear those who they entrust their lives to.  

We need to evaluate why we are so quick to spank and “ discipline” our children. We need to evaluate why we have a hard time discussing things with our children. We need to evaluate why our children have a hard time coming to us with their problems or issues. We need to evaluate why we have to cling to “ tough love”. We need to evaluate Post-Colonial Traumatic Stress Disorder Syndrome. We need to evaluate why we have a difficult time expressing ourselves and being vulnerable. We need to evaluate why we ignore mental health concerns in our community. We need to evaluate why we put unnecessary stress and pressure on our children. Who benefits and who suffers?

How do we find better ways to engage our children? How to we find better ways to encourage our children?
We need to heal. Too many of us are suffering and we have not carved out the space to discuss these issues. 

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