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Just A Slap? Argentina's Old Ideas On Child Discipline

Argentina is the patriarchal latecomer after moves by several Latin Americans to adopt norms to outlaw any physical violence inflicted on children.

Maltreatment, not "discipline."
Maltreatment, not "discipline."

BUENOS AIRES — A slap in the face or smack on the head are the kind of gestures many parents in Argentina still use to "discipline" their children. Some are convinced it is the best way to raise a child, and others just do it, without even giving it any thought.

The United Nation's child protection agency UNICEF reports that a quarter of all parents around the world admit to having used such methods. The Global Movement for Children in Latin America and the Caribbean sees adult-on-child violence as a regional scourge, and the UN has recommended specific laws against all forms of child maltreatment.

Costa Rica, Venezuela, Uruguay and Honduras already have instituted such norms. Brazil recently adhered to them as well. But meanwhile, Argentina is still working on them. Why?

Argentine parents of all socio-economic and educational backgrounds continue, even today, to see hitting their children as part of their day-to-day education. The kid won't clear his or her toys, eat, bathe or sleep. That may first to lead to shouting, which often winds up with some form of physical reaction.

"Physical punishment as part of the repertoire of educational conducts has become natural," says Fernanda Tarica, a physician and head of the NGO Shalom Bait, which fights domestic violence. "What we need to change is the belief system that remains rooted in society. Patriarchal authority continues and children are still seen as something to be controlled or indoctrinated. In that context, many continue to view physical punishment as legitimate."

Tarica clarifies that blows teach children nothing, except to hit someone else. "It seems effective, but only immediately. The punished child is inhibited by being afraid."

Child maltreatment is a violation of the most basic rights of children and teenagers. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, now 25 years old, requires signatories to "take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical and mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation including sexual abuse."

In 2006, the UN's Committee on the Rights of the Child again asked member states to forbid all forms of physical punishment and degrading treatment against children. Yet children continue to suffer mistreatment in places where they are supposed to be protected, namely at home and at school.

Scars and worse

A vigorous beating is not the only form of maltreatment. Constant shouting, denigration and sustained indifference can also have devastating effects.

"There are three main forms of child maltreatment: physical, emotional or psychological, or through neglect or abandonment. The various forms of abuse produce lasting physical and emotional scars, death or serious harm in some form," states UNICEF's regional report on violence on children and teenagers.

Argentina has Law 26.061 for the Protection of Children. Article Nine of that law recognizes the right of children to dignity and physical integrity, and sets out the duties of state organs and persons informed of situations of abuse. It expressly forbids corporal punishment even without provoking visible lesions.

"But the UN wants specific laws," says Diana Conti, the legislator who proposed last year a bill to ban corporal punishment on children and teenagers. It is currently in the parliament's Family Committee.

She told Clarín that the bill would forbid "the father, mother, family members, legal representatives, persons charged with educating or caring for children and teenagers of either sex, persons working in social, educational or health services in the public and private spheres, or any person given custody, of a child or teenager of either sex, from utilizing corporal punishment or any act that causes physical, spiritual or psychological harm or degradation in any conceivable form."

Article 647 of the Conti bill, which would amend the Argentine Civil Code and is partly approved in the Senate, again specifically disallows corporal punishment of children and teenagers.

María Elena Naddeo, an official of the Buenos Aires ombudsman's office, says new legislative initatives follow UN recommendations "because there is a lot of physical abuse" in spite of existing laws.

For specific prohibitions she says, "there must be penalties, and there will be."

Nora Schulman, the head of CASACIDN, an organization that verifies implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, says "it is very important for countries to start fighting physical violence against children as state policy. Corporal punishment against children remains invisible because it usually happens in private and there are no official statistics."

Still she says, 80% of cases taken to the ombudsman's office and child shelters are "for physical violence. These are stories that generally repeat themselves from generation to generation. It has to be stopped now, during childhood, to ensure a less violent society."

Fernanda Tarica notes that "we want to teach them not to shout or hit and we do it by shouting and hitting them. And there is nobody to punish us because nobody sees it. It's total impunity and the double standards of adults."

We all know limits are healthy and necessary — and that goes for adults too.

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