It smacks of ignorance to ban corporal punishment
Over the last five decades, Australia has experienced a cultural transformation due to increased migration. Migration brings with it some serious challenges. Family dynamics and gender roles change. You lose social networks and cultural identity. Then there’s the difficulty of interpreting and negotiating a new legal system.
Yet one of the biggest challenges, that indeed divides Australian society, is that of parenting and parenting rules.
Parenting in the new culture brings with it many intergenerational conflicts, simply because family values differ across cultures. Traditional parenting practices used in the home country may not be the norm in the new one.
Many of the recent migrants and refugees relocating to Australia come from predominantly collectivist societies, such as Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Within these societies, parenting styles are geared toward reinforcing hierarchical roles, and authoritarian parenting is generally the norm.
Corporal punishment – mainly smacking – is one of the key threads of an authoritarian parenting style. Obedience and respect for authority is valued, and inter-dependence is encouraged. Self-assertion and independence, on the other hand, are discouraged. Parenting is couched within the context of a ‘family’, which encompasses grandparents, parents, children, uncles and aunts, and close neighbours according to clan membership. Each of the extended family members has a role to play in the nurturing of the child and is a source of support, but also plays a role in enforcing the values or rules.
But once in Australia, aspects of these parenting standards – like smacking as a form of corporal punishment – are often either against the law, or not in line with the dominant parenting style of an individualistic, autonomy-oriented society like Australia.
The power of state intervention to separate a family over their disciplinarian practices is unfamiliar, and an ever-present threat. It also appears to have far reaching effects on the family functioning. Migrant parents may become more rigid over time as a result, and less likely to make a transition from the authoritarian to the autonomy-oriented parenting style, as a coping mechanism and a way to reinforce cultural identity.
Studies have found that conditional smacking – non-abusive smacking of a child who responds defiantly to milder tactics such as time out – is an effective disciplinary method and does not promote any more antisocial behaviour in children. Compared to 13 alternative disciplinary tactics, such as reasoning, removal of privileges, love withdrawal, ignoring and restraint, conditional smacking reduced antisocial behaviour more significantly. Only overly severe and predominant smacking compared unfavourably. So why does smacking continue to be a controversial parenting practice?
The focus seems to be on migrant parents to come to terms with the expectations of their new society. But it is important that service providers and policy-makers have the knowledge and awareness of the diversity in parenting approaches within migrant communities and that the dominant parenting constructs and strategies not be ‘one size fits all’.
As a migrant myself, from a collectivist society, I was aware of the challenges associated with parenting in a new culture. My wife, who is Australian, and I opted for a contract or agreed behaviour plan with our children. Our children were asked to list behaviours that needed to be rewarded and match them with what they perceived to be commensurate rewards for good behaviour. Then, together as a family, we drew up a set of rules, with rights, responsibilities, rewards and consequences for non-adherence:
- If you choose to be pleasant, smile and communicate, we will do the same.
- If you choose to grunt, grumble or be grumpy, you will lose your mobile phone.
- If you ask pleasantly to be driven to school, we will sometimes drive you.
- If you are grumpy or ungrateful, you will take the bus every day.
- If you keep your room clean, tidy and organized, we will do your washing.
- If your room is a mess, you will do your own washing.
- If you are polite and appreciative, we will sometimes prepare your meals.
- If you are grumpy or ungrateful, you will always prepare your own.
- If you are clean and attend to your own personal hygiene, you will be provided with deodorant, shampoo and toiletries of your choice.
- If not, you will buy your own with your own money.
- If you keep up with your homework without being reminded, and keep your books in order, you will have access to the internet at home.
- If not, you will lose internet access.
- If you are pleasant to your parents and siblings, you can go on outings with your friends at the end of the week, and be entitled to some pocket money.
- If not, you will be grounded.
- The contract was negotiated and agreed by all, and helped us to formalise shared values, maximise cooperation and minimise disputes about discipline in our family home.
It is important that migrant parents from collectivist societies are provided with sufficient support not only to help them understand norms, values and expectations associated with parenting in their new environment, but also to help them negotiate nuances and differences in parenting practices and to implement some changes in their parenting approach.
Learning and understanding the dimensions associated with raising children is a two-way process. Host societies stand to learn from migrants’ parenting approaches.
Associate Professor Andre Renzaho is the Director of Migration, Social Disadvantage and Health Programs at Monash University, and has looked closely into the parenting challenges faced by migrants and refugees in Australia. Andre and his wife Catherine have drawn up a contract with their twin sons and daughter to promote good behaviour. Andre will appear on SBS’s Insight program tonight, at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.
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