The earliest instance of being beaten that Sumedh* can remember is when he was in class 4. “I had called a classmate, who was yelling bad words at me, an ass. The teacher told my parents, and they beat me.”
His most vivid memory however, is from class 5. “My parents had come for sports day and met the class teacher. She randomly told my parents that I was very talkative – she hadn’t even scolded me about this in class. I fled home and hid the scales (rulers),” the 25-year-old recounts, “That day was bad.”
For the next few years, Sumedh, who grew up in Trichy, remembers the wooden rulers being used to discipline him – whether it was for being talkative in school, academic performance, or pulling the door handle of a family friend’s car a little too hard. “There was a point where I'd get a thrashing once a month. It was joked about,” he shares.
The beatings finally stopped in class 9. “I think quite simply because I wouldn't react,” he explains. “Like, how much do you cry and bawl? After a point it’s like, oh great here comes another wave. The last time my mother hit me, the wooden scale broke. I still have the scar. I joke about it now.”
Sumedh says that as a result of these beatings, he developed a very stoic response to pain. “Even now if I burn or cut my finger while cooking, my own silence surprises me,” he says.
Last week, a video of a child from Tamil Nadu telling her mother to explain things with kindness rather than scolding or hitting, went viral. Smithika, the four-year-old child of M Prakash, an auto driver and P Praveena, is having a conversation with her mother, who tells the child that she got hit because doing mischief is wrong.
Smithika then vehemently says, “Without beating or shouting, you should say it in a good way.” She adds, “Even if I do mischief, you should say it in a good way without scolding.”
While the video was shared on social media, the reactions to it were more of amusement and endearment. What it could have done and did not do, was start a conversation on corporal punishment at homes. While the violence meted out to a child in the name of love and discipline are arguments that still find takers, these practices have lasting impacts on a child’s psyche, their relationships with their parents as well as with others.
How corporal punishment affects a child
Vidhi*, a 32-year-old writer, remembers being beaten and pinched as punishment for anything from not finishing food to making mistakes while studying to not complying with her parents’ expectations on how she should dress and conduct herself.
And while the beatings stopped for her brother when he was around 10 years old, they continued for Vidhi until she was 22. The last instance was when her mother was unhappy about a skirt she was wearing to work. Her mother raised her hand to slap her, and Vidhi held her hand and told her she would hit back.
But in the years preceding that, the abuse had a considerable impact on her. “I was very angry and rebellious. I thought my parents did not love me, especially my mother. My dad never yelled or hit me but he didn't stand up for me either,” she says. “Every time my mom hit me, I withdrew from them. I stopped trusting them with my problems.”
At times, when she was unable to express how angry she was and screaming did not suffice, she would self-harm. “I would make cuts on my wrist with a razor. I did not want to die, but I wanted to express how angry I felt,” Vidhi says, adding that her parents did not know any of this.
Sumedh too withdrew from his parents because of these experiences. “I never grew close to them. I care about them, but they know very little of me,” he says.
Karthikayani Murugan, a clinical psychologist at Kovai Medical Centre Hospital in Coimbatore, says that corporal punishment at home can adversely affect children in the long term. “Parents are often the first role models for children. As a result of the violence, the children may withdraw and become very introverted. They may have low self-esteem, feel worthlessness, feel like they deserve the violence, which can lead to developmental issues later on,” she explains.
PT Gajalakshmi, a Chennai-based clinical psychologist, also warns that long term abuse can result in ‘learned helplessness’, where a person’s willingness to respond after each instance of violence diminishes. They begin to believe that their attempts to get out of such a relationship or speak up against the violence are futile, and the violence is deserved. This can make a person vulnerable to further abuse in their lives.
The impact on other relationships
That physical abuse from parents would impact children’s relationship with them seems like an obvious outcome. But it also affects their other interpersonal relationships.
Gajalakshmi explains the process of internalisation and externalisation of abuse such as this. “If a person internalises the abuse, they may develop mental health issues like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, submissiveness and so on. If a person externalises it, they perpetuate what they have experienced or witnessed – aggression, rule breaking behaviour etc.”
Mayank*, an assistant director at a Delhi-based production house, witnessed how his cousin’s behaviour changed due to the violence he witnessed at home. Chiranjeet, who lived in Mumbai, came to Belagavi for graduation, where Mayank stayed. “I remember he would be really jumpy and scared of loud sounds. Even if I increased the TV volume, he’d tell me reduce it because he was constantly afraid he would get punished by an elder,” Mayank says.
On the other hand, Chiranjeet would externalise the violence he experienced at home on to younger cousins, Mayank included. “He would talk to me very aggressively, like a bully, almost provoking me for small things,” he recalls. “A lot of times, this happened in front of other elders. But they did not protect me or stop him, because according to them, he was older and so, I should respect what he said.”
Vidhi also normalised the violence that she grew up witnessing and experiencing at home. First, it made her feel she had to go out of the way to please a person she was with to seek emotional validation. It affected her initially after marriage too. “For a long time, my response to a disagreement with my husband was to shout and cry. I didn’t realise I could put my views across calmly, I thought screaming was the only way,” she says.
Breaking the cycle of abuse
“It was very normal for mine, and our parents’ generation to have corporal punishment at home as a way of disciplining. But that does not make it right,” Gajalakshmi notes.
And it is often the children who experience physical abuse at home who may tend to perpetuate it further. For instance, when Mayank asks Chiranjeet, who is now in his 30s, about the time he got beaten at home, he does not think it’s worth discussing. “He thinks it was alright, and that he would also use force if his child steps out of line,” Mayank shares.
Vidhi believed the same when she had her daughter in 2011. When she hit her for the first time, it felt satisfying to end her tantrum with a slap. When she was two however, Vidhi caught the terror in her eyes as she raised her hand. “I realised I could do whatever I wanted – shout at her, hit her, slap her – and no one would know or question me. It was terrifying,” she says.
Vidhi’s parents too had grown up in households where corporal punishment was normal. That day however, Vidhi decided to end the cycle of abuse with her.
Gajalkshmi and Karthikayani both feel that parents today need to understand that each child’s capacity is different. “Parents are expecting too much from kids – go to this class, that class, be a topper,” Karthikayani notes. “When the child does not fulfil these expectations, it results in punishments. Mothers actually come and ask us why their child is not in the top 10 at school. The focus is more on ‘compete’ than ‘complete’,” Gajalakshmi adds.
Karthikayani also adds that it is important with any sort of punishment for parents to explain to the child the reason behind it. “Parents should try using positive reinforcement and social rewards instead of physical punishment. If the child has done something wrong, remove the reinforcement – like no chocolates for a period of time. And always have a conversation with them about their side of the story and why what they did was wrong,” she advises.
The ultimate question remains however: does corporal punishment get the point across?
“It does not,” Sumedh says. “If the goal is to shape someone’s character, beating them up probably is the least effective way of doing it. All it does is fill the kid up with fear and rage.”