Is a parent who spanks her misbehaving child exercising a parental right, or violating human rights?
A group of activists lobbying to make corporal punishment illegal argue the latter, but acknowledge they’re fighting an uphill battle in a country where a sturdy majority was raised with a “spare the rod, spoil the child” philosophy.
According to Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada, one of the leaders supporting a change to the Family Code, eliminating physical punishments in the home is an important first step toward tackling the country’s problems with violence.
In fact, corporal punishment is inconsistent with Costa Rica’s image as a peace-loving country, she claims.
“Part of our society keeps (supporting) myths – that this is a society of peace,” she said at a recent press conference to support the proposed reform, now under consideration at the Legislative Assembly. “We’re legitimizing physical and psychological violence against a sector… that can’t defend itself the way we adults can…
We’re a pretty violent society, despite the fact that we sell something else to tourists.”
On a recent afternoon in downtown San José’s CulturePlaza, where dozens of kids scampered after pigeons and tossed corn kernels across the pavement to attract more, a small group of parents consulted by The Tico Times had mixed feelings about the proposal. It seemed to be news to most.
Some, such as Ivannia Díaz, 21, initially said they would support the ban – but balked at the idea that any slap or spank would become illegal.
“You see lots of parents hitting their kids – you can’t even trust your own family. It would be good to abolish it… but maybe sometimes…” she said, somewhat indecisive as she considered the possibilities. “Sometimes they behave so badly. It’s something that happens.”
According to documents presented at a recent press conference to garner support for the proposed ban, 65% of adult Costa Ricans“hit, pinch and kick” children “very frequently” as a disciplinary measure, while 28% do so “infrequently.”
Last year, 635 minors were attended at the National Children’s Hospital in San José for injuries resulting from abuse.
Though the two sets of statistics aren’t directly related – a spanking and a beating are generally very different – Quesada and her colleagues argue that one leads to the other.
“This idea of ‘moderate’ can never be applied” to abuse, Milena Grillo, director of the nonprofit children’s rights organization Paniamor, said at the press conference.
Studies have shown that parents rarely hit their children in a state of total calm, and that as children adjust to the level of corporal punishment they’re receiving, parents generally need to up the ante – applying harsher and harsher punishments – to obtain the same effect.
Most importantly, “kids learn that this is a way to force someone to do something,” Grillo said – not the message parents want to send, especially when, according to one study in Costa Rica, the number-one reason parents hit their children is because they caught the child hitting another child.
While child abuse – that is, physically injuring a child – is already outlawed under the Criminal Code, the new bill would reform the Children’s and Adolescents’ Code to prohibit any “physical or emotional mistreatment of minors.”
Critics of the change say that wording is just too vague.
Ofelia Taitelbaum, a National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator and member of the First Legislative Subcommission – a body comprising one-third of the assembly’s members, who meet weekly and are authorized to vote certain bills into law – is one of those critics.
“Who doesn’t want kids not to be mistreated?” she asked. “But that’s not what they’re talking about (in the bill). It talks about any physical, mental or psychological punishment.
It’s very, very, very open.”
But specificity isn’t her only problem with the bill.
“Maybe we’re going to extremes and entering into the intimacy of the home, how parents raise their children,” she said.
“A little slap – sometimes it’s appropriate. Plus, there are kids and then there are kids… there are some kids who, you tell them two times, you tell them 18 times, and things stay the same.”
Another criticized aspect: the bill outlines no sanction for violating the law and hitting a child. However, the bill’s proponents, such as Quesada, say that imposing a punishment would only place more stress on families, when the goal is education and support.
So far, approval of the bill looks possible, depending on how many members show up to vote on the big day. At least nine legislators from various parties are in favor of the reform, so that if the vote takes place with the minimum for quorum – 13 of the 19 members –the reform will win easily. Should all 19 members show up, however, it’s anyone’s game.
José Cordero, another of the parents watching the world go by with a babe-inarms Monday afternoon, said he doesn’t want today’s young Costa Ricans, such as his infant son Donavan, to go through the corporal punishment he experienced as a child.
More and better education for parents should be provided, however, he said.
“It should happen at schools, since that’s where parents go every day,” said Cordero, 21.
Authorities are working on it, and the proposed reform would mandate more resources for the task. It makes the Child Welfare Office (PANI) and Public Education Ministry (MEP) responsible for “promoting… relationships of respect” and providing parenting training for parents, caregivers and others, as well as classes for children “so they respect their parents.”
Various actions along these lines are already in place, such as a program at Cen-Cinai (development and nutrition centers) throughout the country.
Paniamor social worker María Luz Gutiérrez said parental education sessions at the centers have had profound, sometimes immediate, effects.
“One father came and said, ‘They hit me (as a kid) and that’s why I am who I am,’” Gutiérrez said, explaining that by the end of the session he was crying and had completely changed his mind.
More than 100,000 parents have attended Cen-Cinai trainings since 2004, and the Education Ministry has trained more than 11,400 more at parent conferences at schools. Prohibiting corporal punishment is crucial if social workers and educators are to provide a clear message during such trainings, advocates say.
“This bill is saying to Costa Ricans, ‘The government says this isn’t OK,” Quesada said. “We want to start eradicating violence in this country… (a child who is physically punished) will keep profound resentment in his heart, and will repeat it with his children and other people.”