Psychological aspects such as humiliation, belittling, threatening, ridiculing and scaring the child are also classified as abuse.

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Should we spare the rod or not?

Most millennials grew up knowing that if they were errant, correction arrived in the form of a cane, a slap, a pinch, or even a kick. This could be dished out for any reason. If you talked back, you got smacked in the mouth. If you did not respond to rhetorical questions, you got smacked. If you looked your parents in the eye while being smacked, they would say you were daring them to fight and smack you harder. If you cried, you got smacked some more.

Even as toddlers, feeding was by suffocation. You would be held down, then your nose was pinched and as you opened your mouth gasping for air, a scoop of porridge would be shoved in and you had no option but to swallow.

This was the norm. No one would bat an eyelid when they heard a child screaming at night. In fact, there are homes which had canes for each child, complete with labels. If you made your cane disappear, you had to go fetch a better cane and it had better pass parental inspection for disciplinary standards. Few homes had naughty corners and time-outs, only introduced to Kenyans via movies and TV shows. Warnings, if any, came only once.

This is the form of disciplining that Purity Maina naturally adopted for her children when she became a parent. Gentle parenting.

“I was a traditional disciplinarian all through,” she says, “we relocated to Europe some time back, and two weeks into our new life, Child Protective Services and the police came to my house and accused me of ‘molesting’ the children. One of my children was making noise in class, and the teacher told him that she would call his mom to come pick him up. He casually mentioned that he fears ‘mom’s mwiko [cooking stick]’. I was reported to the authorities.”

Purity was let off with a warning after she explained that spanking was normal in Kenya and she was new in Europe. The authorities recommended time-out, therapy, and reduced privileges.

In Kenya, Sections 13 and 18 of Children Act provide that a child shall be entitled to protection from physical and humiliating abuse and shall not be subjected to torture, cruel treatment or punishment.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child defines corporal or physical punishment as ‘any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.’

The Committee goes further to describe this as ‘hitting (smacking, slapping, spanking) children with a hand or implement (whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon or similar) but it can also involve, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, pulling hair or boxing ears, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, burning, scalding or forced ingestion.’

Psychological aspects such as humiliation, belittling, threatening, ridiculing and scaring the child are also classified as abuse.

Perhaps it might be time to revise the popular Luo lullaby which translates to ‘Oombe Oombe, a crying child, the hyena will eat. A quiet child, the hyena will leave.’

Godfrey Lunayo, a pastor and teacher in Garissa, believes in ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ as outlined in the book of Proverbs, in the Bible.

“There are mistakes like rudely answering back at a mother, — that is an instant slap. Others, like not performing well in class or having a lackadaisical attitude towards church activities invite more canes. If my child refuses to do house chores, her pocket money is slashed. The Bible also advocates for caning. However, I ensure there’s a level of dignity as I punish. Basically, I adopt the firm, fair and friendly concept,” he says.

He is not alone. A 2019 Violence Against Children Survey conducted in Kenya, found that 35.3 percent of females and 48.1 percent of males held that parents needed to use corporal punishment to raise children (respondents were 18-24-year-olds).

Bob Kariuki, an auditor in Voi, says, “The gentle parenting method is uncouth. We are bringing up children who have no manners, who are so full of themselves and they can’t be told anything. Imagine going to the supermarket with a child who throws tantrums, then you tell them ‘no baba, no mama’. Nonsense!”

But did the millennials who were not raised gently turn out okay?

Elizabeth Juma from Nairobi’s Kayole believes that she turned out right for the most part, but her mental health was affected.

“Sometimes I don’t know how to discipline my son because I grew up with emotionally immature parents. They were violent but that is not what I want to do to my son. I have started reading articles and educating myself on the gentle approach so that he doesn’t grow up with the same story as mine.”

Njoki Mambo, an intentional and positive parenting advocate, agrees with Elizabeth. She was brought up in an environment that she describes as violent and traumatic, the effects of which she is still trying to work through well into parenthood.

“When I had my first baby at 20, in 2013, I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to be a good parent,” Njoki says.

“I just knew I couldn’t treat my child the way I had been treated by my parents. In the beginning it was messy. I was trying to be everything my parents were not, but I slipped all too often.”

Research published in 2021 shows that spanking alters children’s brain response in ways similar to severe maltreatment and increases the perception of threats. The study, “Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children,” was published in journal called Child Development.

The overall interpretation of the study was that children that are spanked are more likely to develop anxiety and depression or have more difficulties engaging positively in schools and skills of regulation, which are necessary to be successful in educational settings.

Perhaps partially recognising the trauma of their childhood and seeking to do better, some parents combine corporal punishment and gentle parenting. These parents explain to their children why their words or actions are wrong, before spanking as punishment.

Chloe Adhiambo from Nairobi says caning is compulsory, but it has to be accompanied by an explanation.

“What works is not the caning by itself, but it being applied with wisdom and love,” she says, “my aim isn’t to instil fear but rather understanding of right and wrong. Children must know why they are being punished, and the consequences for their actions. I don’t want fearful children who obey out of fear, but obedient children who are guided by principles and understanding.”

Another parent, Lynette Achieng’, agrees that blending corporal and gentle parenting is the way to go. “Children are born foolish, so we need to teach them,” she says. “At the same time, we need to communicate the reason so that they understand why we are inflicting pain. Use of slippers is important; even the Bible endorses it. Not to harm the children, but to align them.”

There is, however, a new breed of parents who believe in exclusive gentle parenting where the child is made to understand why their actions or words are wrong, and that there will be non-violent consequences like withdrawal of gadgets and privileges.

Keshi Wangari from Nairobi’s Kitengela is one such parent. She was raised in a non-violent home, and enjoys a close relationship with her mother. She confides in her mother freely regardless of the topic, and she is parenting her daughter the same way.

“My daughter and I talk about things deeply,” Keshi says, “we weigh the effects of her actions and what better options she had before her actions, and we reflect on that. Sometimes it can be difficult but I train her to behave the way she would expect others to behave.”

Syriana Mwandacha from Mombasa says that she has conversations with her young son, and he listens. For punishment, she withdraws privileges.

“He broke the remote, so he stayed a day without TV,” she says. He tried screaming at me, so I simply said I will not listen to what he says if he screams. He no longer screams at people. He knows if he throws tantrums at the supermarket, he loses the privilege of accompanying me. Now we make a shopping list together and stick to it. When talking to someone, I remind him to use kind words. Use ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’. It takes a while but with time they learn to do it. The trick is, use those words too so they know it’s normal.”

Mary Mungai from Kiambu says she has never hit her children or used any verbal or emotional violence, and her children have grown to be confident and open-minded. They even report themselves when they have done wrong and choose their punishments.

“We don’t go around beating people who annoy or wrong us in adult life,” Mary says. “Yet we have normalised violence against children, just because they can’t beat us back.” Five years ago, Njoki Mambo made the resolve to become a gentle parent and stopped hitting her children.

“I stopped with the physical discipline, verbal attacks, and emotional manipulation. I have seen a transformation in my children.”

The gentle parenting advocate says that obedience is not something you expect from a child; it is something you teach them. She makes house rules together with her children, and invokes their emotions and understanding to help them understand why something should be done one way and not another.

“I don’t use the word discipline in my house,” Njoki says. “That’s a term used in correctional facilities and my house is not one. In my house, we correct each other with love. When the children err, the first thing is helping them understand why what they did was wrong. When you inflict fear and pain on a child, you’re teaching them what to do to avoid punishment, but you’re not teaching them why that thing is wrong.”

Njoki says that when parents fight, we call it domestic violence and scream at the top of our voices to seek justice. Yet when the same parents beat up their children, we call it discipline.

“Tough love isn’t love at all. Love is gentle, reassuring, and warm,” Njoki says.

Read here on how violence at home affects children.