March 11, 2008
By Ron Synovitz
Are Afghan parents’ attitudes on child rearing changing?
Ten-year-old Farhad is one of seven children in a family from Kabul. His mother and father have a hard time earning enough money to feed the entire family, so Farhad shares some of their burden by washing cars to earn money for the family.
With so many mouths to feed and so little income for the family, Farhad is not allowed to play with other children in the neighborhood or go outside to play in his free time. And if he disobeys the rules, Farhad says, his father disciplines him with beatings.
“Sometimes, when I come home late, my father doesn’t let me have dinner. Once, he beat me so hard that he gave me a bloody nose and a cut on my head,” Farhad said. “I wash cars to make money, and if I come home without much money, he beats me and asks for more money” to help feed the rest of the family.
Farhad’s mother says she thinks that beating her children is not the best form of discipline — but she does consider it to be necessary and justified in some cases.
Still, Farhad’s mother says her husband sometimes goes too far. “I don’t beat my children often. I love them. But sometimes they behave badly — for example, fighting with the neighbor’s children. Then I will beat them,” she said. “But when their father comes home, just seeing his children behaving badly, he starts beating them. There have been times when he has beaten them until they fell unconscious. And I ask him to please stop. They are just growing up. But he still does it.”
Common Parenting Tool
The family’s acceptance of corporal punishment as a necessary tool of parenting is not unusual in Afghanistan. New research published in Kabul says it is common for adults in Afghanistan to discipline their children by beating them.
But the study by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) also found that attitudes among Afghans are changing. Many Afghan parents recognize that violence causes physical and psychological harm to children.
Deborah Smith, a coauthor of the study and a senior researcher on gender and health issues at AREU, said the smallest group of those surveyed saw corporal punishment as “a good way of bringing up children.” Others saw it as a last resort if milder discipline has not worked.
But another group, “a significant number of people, felt that all violence toward children was wrong,” Smith said. “There was quite a high level within the communities that felt violence toward children was not acceptable — that it is not a good way to treat children. However, alongside that, violence toward children in the community within their families was seen as accepted, widely used, and recognized.”
AREU interviewed Afghan parents across the country about their views, and found that they were open to new ways of thinking.
“People were extremely willing to discuss these things with the research team…both within the private forum of an interview but also in the public space of a focus-group discussion,” Smith said. “People’s ideas about violence toward children in the family were not fixed. They were flexible. People changed their ideas over the course of one focus group, and people changed their ideas over the time of the research. We think that is very important for change.”
Smith says the remarks by Farhad’s mother reflect a widespread view among Afghan parents about disciplining their children.
“People talked a lot about how violence is wrong. But they would say, ‘What else can I do?’ They would say, ‘It makes me sad when I’m violent to my children.’ Or they would say, ‘I regret hitting my children. But what else can we do to make them behave or to stop them from being naughty?'” Smith said.
‘To Teach Them A Lesson’
When RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan asked Farhad’s father about beating his children unconscious, he denied he had done anything wrong.
“When a father or a mother becomes angry and beats their child, they do it because they don’t want their child to become a bad person,” he said. “When they beat the children, it is not because of faults within the father or mother. It is because of something the child has done.”
Farhad’s father also said that beating his children is the only way he knows to teach them to be polite to others. “When I go home and I see my children playing without manners, I slap them to discipline them and to teach them to be polite. Especially when the boys are naughty. This is normal. You must slap them at least two or three times to teach them a lesson,” he said.
But one six-year-old boy in Kabul — with scars on his face from being beaten by his father — told Radio Free Afghanistan that his father gets out of control when he becomes angry. The boy, who asked not to be named, says he has learned only fear and guilt from being beaten so severely.
“My father beats me with a belt. Several times he’s beaten me so hard that he’s broken my teeth. He’s even whipped me with a cable,” the boy said. “When he beats me, I’m frightened, so I try to hide until my mother comes and protects me. Sometimes, he also beats my mother because of me. You can see that I have scars near my eyes and on my head. That’s from my father beating me with his belt.”
Smith says the AREU research focused only on attitudes about violence, rather than addressing the long-term psychological impact that violence can have upon children. But Smith says additional research is under way about domestic violence in Afghanistan to try to answer those questions. She noted that Afghans share a general understanding that beatings lead to a cycle of violence in which children who are beaten growing up often treat their children the same way.
However, she said, “we certainly found evidence that it also works the other way. Some people experienced violence [when they were young and] therefore are very keen that their own children don’t experience the same levels of violence. Also, a much wider study on violence in the family will be coming out over the next few months, and the same was said. Some men who’d witnessed their fathers beating their mothers didn’t want to do the same to their own wives.”
Smith concludes that one reason for the changing attitudes has been the return of millions of refugees to Afghanistan from abroad. She says Afghans who have lived for years in other countries have seen that there are effective, nonviolent ways to discipline children — and they have brought those ideas back to Afghanistan with them.
RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharifa Safi contributed to this report from Kabul