Cultural differences in childrearing require settlement organizations to provide newcomers with information and support in understanding Canadian laws on corporal punishment, also known as ‘spanking’, say experts.
Nothing is more indicative of culture than the process of raising children to become adults, explains Justin Ryan, public education and communications co-ordinator with the Multicultural Association of the Greater Moncton Area (MAGMA).
He describes a rite of passage for boys of a Brazilian tribe as an extreme example. A glove or gauntlet is made of grass. Bullet ants, whose bites feel like bullet shots, bite the young boy’s hand. He is not allowed to cry out in pain.
“Here, that would be the most violent consideration of child abuse possible. There, it’s the process which you become an adult,” says Ryan. “If I did that to my daughter, they would take her away.”
New immigrants coming to Canada may be conflicted on Section 43, Canada’s law on corporal punishment, which the government agreed to revoke late last year as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission‘s recommendations.
This is often because they are coming from vastly different cultural backgrounds – some from strongly patriarchal societies with very little infrastructure and where domestic violence is relatively common, Ryan notes.
[I]n a developing nation … there may be a law that says parents can’t strike their children, but there is little follow-up or action taken.
In some cultures, for example, a father backhanding his child for speaking back, or not cleaning up or not being obedient is acceptable.
Ryan says the most common response he gets from immigrants is surprise that there is a law regarding corporal punishment and that the government reinforces it.
He explains that in a developing nation that has little infrastructure, there may be a law that says parents can’t strike their children, but there is little follow-up or action taken.
Understanding of Canadian way is vital
Gary Direnfeld, a social worker who has 33 years of experience helping parents manage behaviour with children, says many immigrants come from countries where they place high value on respect, particularly for elders.
“That is a kind of respect that comes without questioning, where we expect the child to heed what the elder has to say and follow through and all will be well, so to speak,” he explains.
Contrast that with Canadian culture, which has more value on individualism and freedoms, which the children are often influenced by. Meanwhile the parents may come from a country where corporal punishment is sanctioned and considered reasonable.
“[T]he thought of a children’s aid worker coming to your home is more than frightful.”
“The child, having learned of their rights and freedoms, in the Canadian context, may then complain about the corporal punishment and that brings the parent to the attention of child protection services,” says Direnfeld, who is based out of Dundas, Ontario.
“If you come from a war-torn country, where one is fearful of the political structures and institutions, the thought of a children’s aid worker coming to your home is more than frightful,” he says.
“As disconcerting as it is to have a visit from the Children’s Aid Society with concerns of abusing your kids, for these families, those concerns are amplified given their lack of trust and faith in institutional services.”
Direnfeld says this issue of corporal punishment is deeper and broader than the average non-immigrant Canadian often appreciates. In acclimatizing new immigrants to Canada, settlement organizations should help them to appreciate our parenting approaches, he suggests.
“If you take a cross-cultural perspective on what [parenting expectations] are, then this gets a lot murkier a lot faster, which means we have to work a lot more closely with clients to communicate and make them understand what the implications are of Canadian law,” adds Ryan.
Lost in translation
Ryan notes that in the case of immigrants, language is also a barrier in communicating with, for example, social services. These barriers may also make it impossible to understand subtle, but crucial, differentiations.
He says that a classic example would be, when asked, “How do you discipline your child?” they may reply, “I beat them,” when what they really mean is “I spank them.”
“They simply don’t have the language skills to choose the word that has the right connotation and correctly carries the reality of what they’re doing.”
“[T]he Canadian government is far more involved with managing family dynamics than most other countries.”
MAGMA works to ensure that all parents understand the Canadian standards of child care. This is particularly the case with refugees, due to the recent influx. Child protective services delivers group sessions to proactively address these issues, such as explaining what is considered acceptable measures of discipline in Canada.
“One of our primary requirements is to instruct our clients [on] what our appropriate Canadian values are starting as soon as they get here regarding the stuff that’s likely to get them in trouble with the law,” Ryan says.
As to the impact of repealing Section 43, which would effectively criminalize even those actions such as corporal punishment, organizations like MAGMA have to be even more proactive in passing on that understanding to their clients.
“Part of that is that the Canadian government is far more involved with managing family dynamics than most other countries,” Ryan explains. “Generally elsewhere … the government is not seen as having a role in such private matters. It’s therefore an adjustment for both sides in this equation when Canadian governments become directly involved in the lives of immigrant families.”
Florence Hwang is a Saskatchewan-based freelance writer. She is a media librarian who loves storytelling. She has written for La Source newspaper, CBC Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Folklore and South Asian Post.