Marek Michalak, Poland’s Ombudsman for Children, talks about upbringing without corporal punishment
During Marek Michalak’s term as Ombudsman for Children, Polish legislation banned corporal punishment as a means for disciplining children. Mr. Michalak talks to The Ukrainian Week about how the attitudes of Polish parents towards their children have changed in recent times.
U.W.: You have worked with young children for over 20 years now. How have parent-child relations changed in Poland in that time? Does the change affect children’s development?
The last 20 years have been a time of intense transformations in Poland. The overall attitude towards human rights, including the rights of children, has changed. Have children changed? I’d say that it is rather their environment, in other words, the adult world that has changed. The time has come, when ever more often, we see the person in a child, rather than material for a future citizen. This is a huge leap forward in adult thinking. It clearly changes attitudes and approaches towards upbringing. Children’s feelings and rights have to be taken into consideration, and their individuality and dignity have to be respected.
U.W.: Corporal punishment had long been viewed as a method of disciplining children in the West. This is no longer the case today. How do parents feel about this in Poland?
On 1 August 2010, Poland banned smacking or beating of children. As a teacher and a father, not just Ombudsman for Children this ban has my unequivocal support. Every human being has a right to live without being subject to violence. The ban will have a positive effect in the future, when a generation brought up without violence grows up. We cannot hit a child when demanding something from them. Hitting children is the easiest way, but we tend to forget that we lose children’s respect when we smack them and they often lose the desire to live. Using such means we raise an individual who lacks faith, who will pass this feeling on to others. Psychologists confirm that those who experienced violence are the most likely to use violence themselves. The law is not enough. We also have to believe that raising children without physical punishment is a possible, good and efficient way. I initiated a survey on this issue a year after parliament passed the ban. It found that the share of people who approved of corporal punishment in Poland had fallen by 9%. Although it is at a level of 69%, it is declining.
U.W.: In his book titled Why Our Children Become Tyrants or the Elimination of Childhood, Michael Winterhoff, a German children’s psychiatrist, describes partner relations as the wrong model for parent-children relations, leading to mental disorders and development problems in children. How can parents see the line between respecting their children’s needs and desires and a strict, authoritarian upbringing?
Respect for parents should grow out of love and understanding each others’ needs, not parents’ strictness. I don’t call on parents to give children the right to decide everything in their everyday life. Instead, I ask adults to listen to what children think, want and say. After all, adults are the ones who make decisions, as they are capable of taking responsibility, taking their child’s needs taken into account. A sensible upbringing is when parents give their children an unlimited supply of love, the L vitamin, spend time with them and give them feasible yet reasonable boundaries. I can reassure everyone that raising people in an environment where their rights, dignity and personality are respected is the only way to smooth out problems and disorders. Fueling and aggravating them won’t help.
U.W.: Many parents today feel lost. They don’t know how to raise their children correctly. What recommendations can you give them? Should they raise their children intuitively or be guided by specific methods? If so, which should they choose?
It is necessary to know how to use recommended books on raising children. Not all of them are good. Parents need to be critical and use their common sense. I recommend Janusz Korczak (Polish teacher, doctor and writer – ed.), a wise person, who understands children’s needs. What you should keep in mind, though, is that there is no specific formula for raising a kid. Every child is different, each has a unique temperament.
U.W.: Should parents set clear behavioural rules for children, is it worth involving them in the creation of these rules, in order to give them more freedom?
We are the ones giving children the very first and the clearest starting point. We should remember that children are cautious observers of our behaviour, both public and private. By allowing children to take part in debates, express their standpoint and co-create reality, we are moving in the direction of raising creative individuals who are interested in the world. But if we coerce them into everything and expect blind obedience, we destroy children’s naturalness. In such case, a child can become either very compliant or very aggressive, hurting himself or others. There is nowhere to hide and wait for the problems of upbringing to resolve themselves. The solution should be sought through dialogue, not monologue. We adults like to preach to children, give them instructions and demand their fulfillment. This is not the essence of a dialogue. We should communicate with them, allow them to express themselves, looking them in the eye, not from above. It’s better to talk to a child at their level, sitting down or kneeling.
U.W.: A hotly debated issue in Ukraine is the interference of authorities in raising children, whose parents are unable to do so adequately. How much power should authorities have in this respect?
The less the state interferes with people’s private lives, the better. That’s the best rule. However, the authorities should react in certain situations, such as when children are hurt. The state should always monitor the protection of the rights of every human being, especially the weak and those unable to protect themselves.
U.W.: What are the common mistakes parents make when raising children today? Are they any different from those of 20 years ago?
Most mistakes are a result of the lack of time parents and children have for each other. People used to communicate much more. At the very least, they would get together at the dinner table. According to my observations, every home has a TV set today, but not every home has a dining table. It’s hard to talk in front of the TV. People don’t look each other in the eye.
Marek Michalak was appointed Ombudsman for Children in Poland in 2008. In 2011-2012, he chaired the European Network of Ombudspeople for Children (ENOC). Mr. Michalak was also Chancellor of the International Chapter of the Order of Smile and a member of the Human Development Committee at the Polish Academy of Sciences. The father of two, nine year old Julia and four year old Milos, Mr. Michalak worked as a teacher and therapist with children in problem families and their parents for 21 years. Under his initiative, 2012 was declared the Year of Janusz Korczak and he was also the initiator of the Third Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Mr. Michalak holds numerous Polish and international decorations.