DON’T CONFUSE DISCIPLINE WITH CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN CHILDREARING
Beginning next April, rearing and disciplining children—traditionally entrusted to parents and guardians—will be regulated under law in Japan. A revised child abuse prevention law will enter into force, banning parents from physically punishing their children.
The revision follows a growing number of fatal cases of child abuse committed by parents or guardians in the name of disciple. The ban reflects the government’s resolve to not let such tragic incidents happen anymore.
On December 3, a welfare ministry panel announced a set of provisional guidelines banning corporal punishment. The ministry is expected to finalize these guidelines by next March 31, defining what specifically constitutes corporal punishment after extensive consultations with experts and the public.
The guidelines, compiled by a panel headed by Ms Masami Ohinata, president of Keisen University in Tokyo, states: “Acts (or punishments) that inflict bodily pain or cause any uneasiness on the part of children will be banned under the law regardless of how light they are or whether the parents or guardians believe them to be disciplinary.”
Specific examples of the acts the panel classified as corporal punishments include:
•Slapping a child on the cheek who refuses to behave despite being reprimanded three
•Keeping a child sitting on the floor in the traditional “seiza” style for a lengthy period
of time for not taking a proper care of an important object;
•Hitting a child in the face because he hit and hurt a friend in the same way;
•Spanking a child for stealing someone else’s belongings;
•Refusing to serve a meal for not doing homework.
I respect the government’s resolve to eradicate corporal punishment, but wonder if it is right to bring such a law into the home.
Although the panel maintains that any act causing “uneasiness” is a corporal punishment that should be banned no matter how light, I consider it absolutely necessary for parents to be resolute about disciplining their children when necessary—by even arousing some uneasiness in a child’s mind at times in order to nurture his or her sense of independence and patience. Japanese should not throw aside the teachings of the great code of childhood education passed down from generation to generation by the Aizu clan in Fukushima Prefecture. Known as the “Ju no Okite,” these are rules of conduct for the children of samurai.
Corporal punishment and discipline are as different as night and day. Unless the ministry’s guidelines succeed in clearly differentiating between the two, the government measures can further weaken education of our youth conducted at home, which already has considerably deteriorated.
Importance of “Emotional Education”
Even if corporal punishment and child abuse are banned, I do not think problems will be satisfactorily resolved unless their causes are strictly examined and effective countermeasures worked out. Shiro Takahashi, an education expert and professor at the Institute of Moralogy in Chiba Prefecture, is alarmed by the precarious decline in the childrearing skills of today’s Japanese parents, noting:
“What is needed in Japan today in raising children is tenderness combined with and sternness. If the coming corporal punishment guidelines define discipline and guidance themselves as harmful, they will in fact further accelerate the decline in the education of our children, contrary to the intent of the law.”
The first thing for parents to do for their children is to lay the groundwork to be the masters of their own lives when they grow up. What little children require is an education enabling them to live positively in the future by nurturing self-control and patience, thoughtfulness and compassion to others, and a rich sensitivity as humans. Describing these qualifies as “non-cognitive abilities,” Professor Takahashi stresses that “emotional education” aimed at fostering them is badly needed in today’s Japan.
Emotional education is designed to nurture sensitivity and gentleness as a human before developing the mental capacity for calculation and memorization. How, then, can “emotional” ability be fostered? Efforts are being made in Japan and elsewhere in the world to rely on scientific knowledge to find the answer.
The 2001 State of the World Children, a white paper issued by UNICEF, introduces a sharply contrasting picture of childrearing in two rural families in Sri Lanka. The two families are fundamentally in the same underprivileged physical environment, living in small cement houses without electricity or running water. They sleep on a dirt floor on woven straw mats. However, the report depicts a large difference in the development of their children.
One family has benefited from Sri Lanka’s health service system and early childhood programs, as well as the guidelines provided by UNICEF specialists. The mother has cooed, babbled, sung to, and hugged her two children regularly. She has played with them, doing such things as making a humble playhouse from twigs and branches tied together with pieces of cloth. She has given them a dream for the future ever since they were very little. As a result, her children have grown up to be active and cheerful.
But the situation is entirely different with the children of the other family, who have not benefited from such opportunities. The boy (7) carries his two-year-old sister, a frightened toddler who clings to him, never uttering a word. Both children are shy and uncommunicative, although they play well together. “But her piercing dark eyes remain fixated on the stranger who visits,” according to the report.
Following the tale of the two families, the report carries a section subtitled The Importance of Ages 0-3, underlining the importance of “warm, responsive care” for children’s physical and mental well-being: “When infants are held and touched in smoothing ways, they tend to thrive. Warm, responsible care seems to have a protective function, to some extent ‘immunizing’ an infant against the effects of stress experienced later in life.”
“Trillions of Synapses”
The report stresses the crucial importance of the first three years of a child’s growth for a healthy development of brain cells. It notes:
“With brain connections proliferating explosively during the first three years of life, children are discovering new things in virtually every waking moment. At birth, a baby has about 100 million brain cells. Most of these cells are not connected to each other and cannot function on their own. They must be organized into networks that require trillions of connections or synapses between them.”
A child’s brain develops at an amazing speed, stimulated in a variety of ways while still in the mother’s womb. Modern brain science has ascertained that an infant, just five days old, can already hear words spoken to it. That is why it is all the more important for parents to communicate their love to infants just born.
That is what Japanese mothers have traditionally practiced. They lovingly held their infant babies in their arms and carried them on their backs for close physical contact, affectionately cooing, babbling to them and looking them in the eye in an effort to show how much they loved them. Brain science has ascertained that every such physical contact between the mother and child in the early stage of growth translates into an explosion of electrical and chemical activity in the brain.
We cannot understand all there is to know about the malleability of an infant’s brain or the infinite possibilities of its development. But we do know that “when a child fails to get the care he needs, or if he experiences starvation, abuse, or neglect, his brain development may be compromised,” notes the report.
Professor Takahashi points out that the childrearing and early education conducted at home should essentially be based on the understanding and recognition of these factors, emphasizing: “Beyond banning corporal punishment, we must be sure to create an environment that enables parents to implement the traditional three steps of childrearing: embracing, educating, and letting go.
“By ‘embracing’ I mean the need (primarily for mothers) to keep close physical contact
with their babies, as they need to be made to feel loved and secure in their embrace. This gives them a sense of self-affirmation and self-respect at an early stage. Next, by ‘educating’ I mean the need for parents to foster self-control and a sense of independence on the part of their children. By the last step, ‘letting go,’ I mean the need for parents to make sure their children are on the right track when they take their first steps towards the future as young adults.”
How true and precious Takahashi’s words are.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 883 in the January 2-9, 2020 issue of The Weekly Shincho)