The Heavy Hand

In Vietnam, teachers and parents still believe kids need to be beaten to behave

UNICEF’s report on Vietnam under its Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, released just a few months ago now, was surprisingly conservative. If you follow such things, you tend to expect a barrage of criticism and finger-pointing – but this time, its report conceded that the country has come a long way since the days of “thuong cho roi cho vot, ghet cho ngot cho bui” (If you love your children, beat them; if you don’t, spoil them). The big question now is just how far there is to go before corporal punishment in Vietnam is a thing of the past.

Westerners come from a similar ideological background – spare the rod, spoil the child – but the past century has seen a growing recognition, in Western countries, of how the cycle of violence works its way through the generations and becomes its own legacy. The move to eradicate the beating of children has proved a very painful transition everywhere it’s been tried.

Whether the same evolution in attitudes is underway in Vietnam is a moot point. Legislatively, corporal punishment has been banished from almost every arena save for the most intimate – in the home – but there are still frequent media reports of excessive violence in schools perpetrated by frustrated teachers. Extreme forms of corporal punishment are the exception rather than the rule; however, speaking with local caregivers does suggest that ‘mild’ discipline such as slapping aren’t all that uncommon even now.

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A few enquiries are all it takes to demonstrate the point. I questioned one local teacher who openly admitted to hitting her students by hand or with a rolled newspaper despite being well aware that such punishments are now illegal in Vietnam. “I only slap the children when they’re really naughty and if there’s no other way to make them better,” she says. “I feel guilty and regret it sometimes, but the pressure of having to look after so many children at the same time makes me lose control.” Misdemeanors that resulted in slapping, by the way, included not eating or sleeping at the proper time. Parents, she continues, “care about the issue very much, but ignore it if the punishment isn’t too serious”.

Without legislative restriction, the situation in the home isn’t so different. One mother spoke in similar terms of being unable to maintain self-control despite feeling that what she was doing was wrong. “You have to teach your child gradually, explain properly and talk gently with your children,” she says. “That’s the principle. In real-world practice, there are children who are too excitable and too energetic, and sometimes the parent cannot control or restrain their own anger or worry, so they’ll come to use a more violent method.”

Adding: “There are several techniques you can use to discipline your children, such as kneeling, caning the palm, and spanking. It depends on the severity of the child’s problem – even though we know that we shouldn’t use these methods.”

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Without meaning to pass judgment, it’s not untrue to say that no matter where people are from, the arguments they use to justify things they wish they didn’t do is startlingly familiar. It’s always something like “but I didn’t hit her that hard.” What disturbs me is that I’ve seen violence against children here, and what I saw was not altogether mild. Late one night on a bus, a beleaguered mother and her two infant children, a boy and a girl, were fellow passengers. When the daughter refused to sit still after being asked several times, the hand came down. Repeatedly. With a force that would have given dark, black bruises even to me, let alone a little girl not yet five, all distorted in screams, inciting her mother, face torn in a fury, to hit harder.

Forgive me, but I have no way of reporting how common that is. No one will talk about that.

Zero Tolerance
Statements from international schools, while cautiously phrased, are usually nonetheless emphatic in declaring zero tolerance for any form of corporal punishment whatsoever. I received unequivocal assurances from both BIS and the Montessori School of Vietnam, for example, that such methods of punishment are expressly forbidden. One parent assured me that “certainly in international standard schools and kindergartens, no teachers would be allowed to raise a hand against a child.” The same can’t be said for local schools. “There have been cases in the press, from across Vietnam, about teachers abusing children. In fact, my helper pays her kids’ teacher a tip to avoid this.”

While she hadn’t heard of an instance of a nanny using physical punishment (sadly, I myself have indeed heard of such cases), she did advise parents to be absolutely clear in their instructions given to household help. “Write it down clearly on paper, and translate the NEVER situations such as hitting, shouting, locking in a room, etc. The cultural differences are huge.”

Be that as they may, cultural differences are only partly to blame for a phenomenon that knows no borders. Patient, good instruction – delivered with the knowledge that sometimes your child may yet persist in doing something that infuriates you – is hard. What’s even harder for offending parents to understand, though, is that an act of violence against a child, no matter how serious, is always in itself a far more contemptible breach of discipline than whatever misdemeanor on the part of the child brought it on. Like all bad decisions, the consequences are inevitably worse than the causes.

Group Of Young Friends Together

As one interviewee said to me, “As a mother, every time I use these severe methods with my own child, I feel pain. There are times when I would enact this punishment while crying myself. I hope that anyone reading this piece will, from then on, restrain themselves whenever they’re
trying to teach or educate their children, or else the next generation in this country will be an incredibly violent one.”

Images by Quinn Ryan Mattingly

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