Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The fear of a timeout

There was a time when I used to think a timeout was only something basketball players took during a game. But that was a long time ago. I came to observe the full power of a timeout only after I came to America some years ago. And I found out that it was the most powerful weapon parents had in the fight against their kids. Whenever their kids did something they weren’t supposed to, a simple timeout would suffice to put the fear of gods, hell, pink unicorns or worse, parents, in to the kids.

The concept remains simple. Kid goofs up/throws a tantrum/kicks up a fuss/does badly in school/is just plain stupid. Parent(s) get hold of aforementioned kid, and put the smack down on him/her, by the use of a timeout. The order will be given (“you have a timeout for 20 minutes”), and all it means is that the kid needs to sit in a corner without doing anything for 20 minutes. And magically, the kid would start pleading for forgiveness, even as I imagine this to be perfect nap time. The more powerful version of a timeout, being grounded, amazed me even more. Being grounded just meant that the kid would have to sit in a room (complete with all the modern comforts of a TV, playstation, a computer, a comfy bed, and books) for a day, a week or a month. That, to me, seems like the definition of heaven.

And then I see the inimitable Carlos Mencia a few weeks ago on Comedy central, talking about the same thing. Of course, here he’s making fun of kids doing badly in school (with his typically “inappropriate” racial stereotypes). White kids who are troublesome or do badly in school get time outs. Hispanic kids screw up; they go home and get thrashed. Asian kids………get the shit beaten out of them even before they screw up, so that they will never dream of screwing up!

Which reminded me of what an African researcher here (I think he’s Ugandan or Kenyan) said. If he did something mischievous in school, his teacher would beat the crap out of him. He’d go home and tell his mom, and she’d go “you stupid kid, why did you have to annoy your teacher?” and proceed to then beat the crap out of him for annoying his teacher. So, the sorry kid would go and tell his uncle about his beating. His uncle, furious, would grab him, say “why the hell did you have to piss off your mother by pissing off your teacher”, and then beat the crap out of him. So that stupid bastard would finally go to his last hope, his dad, who’d hear the story, turn blue in rage, and then proceed to give him a sound beating for annoying his uncle by annoying his mother who got annoyed because he pissed off his teacher first.


Now that story may well fit in India. I’ve seen some teachers soundly thrash their students. Canings (or that tight rap on the knuckles with a wooden ruler) at least used to be rather common when I was a kid. And I got off lightly, since the teachers in my school were a rather good lot, who rarely dished out a beating. I’ve heard some pretty good stories of teachers beating the shit out of a student for something as trivial as forgetting to bring the homework notebook, or writing English notes on a Hindi notebook, or not bringing a compass and protractor to the geometry class, or not wearing a uniform to school.

Sound familiar to some of you?

Somehow, it all seems to come down to the old colonial saying, “spare the rod, and spoil the child”. The concept of beating kids to discipline them has long been abandoned in the west, and if that happens in the States or the UK, that poor teacher is going to prison or will face some rather hefty lawsuits. Much of this holds for parents as well. But in most of the old British colonies (in South Asia, or Africa) the rule of the wooden ruler holds sway to this day.

Now, the question that always remains in my mind (which remains amazed at the power of a timeout) is this. How does one get parents or teachers in Asia (India in particular, since I’m most familiar with the environment there) to stop beating the crap out of the kids?


Anonymous said...

It's a power thing, Sunil. There may be some individuals who have enough sense and self control to refrain themselves after realizing that beating the hell out of a kid isn't the only way to 'discipline' him, but they would very few and far between indeed.

For the majority, its about power. Give em power, and they'll exercise it in any way they can. It's a basic human tendency. Whether you're the big fat surly man, 'head' of the family, or the nasty, mean old matriarch, or the elder sibling, or the class bully - people give in to the baser instincts and cater to their need to dominate.

In India especially, the prevalent attitude is that one must 'respect' one's elders, regardless of how deserving of respect they are. A professor who's utterly incompetent, tremendously egotistic and needlessly mean, can still get away with abusing students, merely because of this social attitude.

But things seem to be changing now, if ever so slowly, and perhaps only in the metros.

Anonymous said...

I think its also a function of teacher frustration...typical classes often consist of 60-65 students...teachers think that this is the easiest way to maintain order, in the absence of any teaching aids, assistants etc.

Sunil said...

a powerthing........may be witnwisdumb. But it's not an excuse.
Teacher frustration, again its not an excuse. How does one justify thrashing an 8 year old or something? Again, there remain a lot of teachers who don't scold or hit students, but many remain who do. Perhaps here some legislation (with enforced penalties) would make a difference. But how does one make this a priority in India or many other countries where there is so much else to think about?

Anonymous said...

legislation and awareness, seems to be the two best ways.

"But how does one make this a priority in India or many other countries where there is so much else to think about?"
- we don't always rationally prioritize things, so that wont be the hindrance. And I don't think it is a trivial matter to be deprioritised. In any case, this can be argued as a priority, given the impact it has on the upbringing of children and thus the future of the nation.

Nice post. I do remember being caned by teachers some times. Oddly, I don't remember it with anger or rage - it was somehow accepted as the way things are. Aside from the pain, it was even "cool", since the cool kids (aka troublemakers) always got the canings.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people have the concept of respect mixed and often confused with fear. The American forms of 'punishment' doesn't seem to that much better than Indian, except the physical abuse. It's a struggle for control, and, as Chet pointed out, for power. It's also the way we (Indians) view children in general: as miniuature adults. They are allowed no room for mistakes, for experimenting, for figuring out what is right and wrong for themselves. They are told everything from the get-go, and any deviation from aforementioned instructions deserves some form of punishment.

I only studied in Indian schools for a little while, but I do remember being rapped across the knuckles with those damnable wooden rulers, sometimes just wooden sticks. I, however, was lucky enough to have parents who did not resort to physical abuse (perhaps because I was a girl, because my brother received some good thrashings) and generally went and spoke to the teacher about whatever I did. And then this was repeated to my tution teacher, who had no qualms about hitting a girl and gave me the wooden stick quite soundly and with a lot of satisfaction. I think that's what shares and disgusts me the most--the satisfaction the parents and elders take from beating the child, because they believe that they've done the 'right' thing.

Anonymous said...

hitting of children by teahcers as well as parents is a crime. period. no ifs and buts about it.

Anonymous said...

The timing of your post is amazing - I wrote a post about beatings yesterday, where I mentioned a friend who wrote about beating kids in his blog :-) That's three blogs on beating kids in 3 days!

Anonymous said...

Grr.. and the link disappears from my name.. blogger/ google is so bothered about link spamming that they havent stopped at adding Nofollows to links - they have to act like I never typed in any. Idiots. Here
it is again
Here it is now, I hope.

Sunil said...

Sue....that's an interesting point about the "cool kids". I also remember that some of the especially cool kids (who got thrashed pretty regularly) were pretty much immune to the beatings. They would get a beating, shrug it off, and get right back to mischief. :-)

vi.....that's a good point, the thought that teachers/parents sometimes think they have done the "right thing" by beating a child. I'm strongly with anonymous in that the hitting of kids by anyone is a crime. My parents never hit me or even raised their voice, and I think i turned out ok :-). There will always be the easy blurring of fear and respect, but the line where they blur is quite far away from real respect. Regardless, it still remains a crime.

Matt.....thanks for the link...it works just fine, and that was a rather interesting story about the nun who beat you when you were a kid. I remember a similar story too....when I was in sixth or seventh grade, this kid was beaten by a teacher (with a cane). On the second whack, the kid grabbed the cane from the teacher, and ran. It ended up being rather entertaining, with the teacher chasing this kid down, and the kid continued to run, cane in hand. In retrospect, it feels really tragic.

Anonymous said...

I agree to some extent with witnwisdumb that this is a power thing. However, thinking back to my schooldays, another thing that strikes me is how angry some teachers generally were. The generally angry ones used to beat often. Then there was one teacher who was a fair bit of a sadist (and he came to a particularly unfortunate-being dragged by a bus to his death). My observation has been that on the one hand, children are treated as miniature adults with little room for mistakes, while on the other "they are to be seen and not to be heard" on any matter of importance. I got away relatively lightly in school (very little beating), although I was insubordinate in class, because I came from "good family" and was otherwise well behaved.

There is something to be said about the burdens teachers face in schools. They often work in pretty difficult conditions and in not very nice surroundings. This is true for students also, and these things are not conducive always to peace and calmness. I think this does not help people prone to anger. In addition, they deal with large classes and often difficult students (I know I did my fair share to make them miserable). However, there are also strong cultural factors in play as others have pointed out. In my experience, there are also class and economic distinctions that are often unconsciously made, which causes differential treatment to students.
Personally, I think that beatings and the like will only reduce when it becomes socially unacceptable to do so-especially when parents no longer consider it a viable or correct form of punishment. I knew many whose parents did think that a bit of beating was good for disciplining the child. Unless they begin to believe otherwise, I dont think it would be an easy thing to stop in schools.

Arun said...

I don't think children should be hit. But framing it as physical abuse also seems a bit much. My fellow students in my class in a Kendriya Vidyalaya took pride in the number of teachers they had reduced to tears, and being caned made one cool (as noted by others above).

Sunil said...

krishna....yes, it is important to start making teachers and parents believe otherwise, and it wont be an easy thing, but a start must be made by talking about it. Arun.....it IS physical abuse. There are enough stories around where the abuse is so much that it sometimes results in permanent physical damage (a loss of an eye, or a broken limb), but more often than not, the result is psychological, and permanent, and will unfortunately continue. And if students (the worst defaulters, who were beaten the most) took pride in their beatings, what was the purpose of the beating?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how you would stop parents from beating the crap out of children, but for teachers its easy.. take the fight back to them.. I used a compass to 'defend' myself and promptly got expelled, but having a history helps.. Especially if you narrate why you had to change schools with glee to the new teacher.

Sunil said...

heh...a compass! I bet you got in to a lot of trouble after that.

But really, that just reinforces the point......the thrashings don't work.