Containing kids without abusing them
Since the introduction of new regulations banning corporal punishment in Korean schools, newspapers have been full of reports of student behavior spinning out of control, verbally and physically harassing their teachers and waves of resignations in response.
While responses to this situation vary, it appears that a general notion is that the recent legal changes have deprived teachers of essential means of controlling children or even basic tools of educating them effectively. If children can no longer be hit it seems the country’s educational system will collapse and economic and social havoc are only paces around the corner.
A good example of this point of view is provided by an article by Shin Chul-ho, which was printed in this publication. The author concludes that ``teachers must have the right to inflict [...] corporal punishment [otherwise students] will not grow up to be democratic citizens”.
Children cannot be contained without hitting them? The argument is obviously fallacious as a very superficial glance at any European country would quickly prove, and also, without entering the ad hominem territory, the fact that the author of this piece is an elementary school teacher, working with young children really does seem to bother me probably as much as his implied link between child abuse and the pillars of a modern democracy.
So let me try to present a more reasonable reflection on the transgressions of Korean children in class that have recently increased in frequency and intensity.
The simplest way of looking at it would be to consider the children’s misbehavior as well as their teachers’ difficulties in adapting to them merely a transient part during an adaptation period.
However, if the lack of obedience and degree of aggression in children is so great that they cannot be controlled without hitting them, there seems to be something more fundamentally awry and deeper rooted issues can be assumed at the heart of these conflicts.
In this scenario the prior use of physical force would in fact have served a function, namely to keep the underlying problems bottled up ― for better or worse. And while I would argue that such suppression by itself is undesirable, the use of violence against children is very hard to justify in either case.
The first of such possible deeper issues could be that children in Korea continue to be exposed to an arguably unhealthy learning environment, which combines extreme peer pressure on a micro-level with a disenfranchisement of learning from its deeper benefits. (Probably the most fitting example of this would be how learning the English language, which can be great fun and tremendously rewarding has become the bane of many young Koreans simply by removing the intrinsic value of being able to communicate and replacing it with an exclusive focus on test scores.)
This leaves children loathing school, channeling their frustrations and anger towards it and is certainly not conducive to learning or correct behavior. Improvements of a productive learning environment would further include the introduction of alternative methods of academic punishment such as effectively granting educators the power to hold back students at the end of a grade or suspend them.
Second, deficiencies in the parents’ function as role models deserve consideration. In order to be a good role model parents need to first make themselves more available to their children ― both physically and emotionally by spending meaningful time together and engaging in actual conversations.
Over time, this would help create a forum for the exchange of opinions and values on a basis of trust that eventually can render antiquated disciplinary methods such as hitting and shouting obsolete.
And lastly, efforts in school as well as at home from an early age should focus more on character building rather than mere academic performance. To make a credible commitment to the importance of proper conduct however, desirable behaviors have to be rewarded as well, either directly by giving credit for wanted behavior or more subtly and yet ultimately more powerfully by establishing a culture that values a certain code of honor and conduct.
In conclusion I believe that the academic and social future of Korea does not depend on the use of corporal punishment in schools but rather on the resolution of more fundamental problems in the education and raising of children.
The writer is an MBA graduate of Yonsei University and founder of the Korean company Stelence International. He is currently writing a book about Korea and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.