*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.
No hiding place was safe for her. The closet, an often-used escape, had disloyal wooden doors that swung open to anyone who pulled on the handles from the outside. Underneath the bed wasn’t foolproof either, because it had gaping entrances that allowed angry claws to grab onto body parts, clothes, whatever was closest, and drag her out. Her long, thick black hair was another betrayer because it acted as a snare, as her pursuer took hold of the fibrous strands to draw her close and then hit her.
Running only made the beatings worse, so Delaney* assumed the position she always took when her mom got mad at her. The dark-eyed teenager coiled her body into a human cocoon, becoming an unarmoured armadillo to block the several blows her mother would deliver.
A few years later, Delaney, now a third-year psychology student at McMaster University, has moved out of her family home and can reflect on her parents’ method of discipline. “If I got in trouble at school, [or] if I got a really low mark in school, they [would] hit me using a wooden spoon, or with their hands, or with a hanger. Something that my mom could reach instantly,” recalls Delaney.
The Sri Lankan Canadian says her immigrant parents never hurt her enough to leave scars, but she remembers that both she and her older sister have been hit “to the point where you can see a handprint on our backs.”
Delaney is among the estimated thousands of Asian children in Canada who have grown up with corporal punishment, and are now suffering with the emotional impacts.
According to Statistics Canada, 13 per cent of adults born between 1980 and 1999 reported being physically abused during their childhood. A sample study conducted in 2000 by the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence indicates that 60 to 80 per cent of Cambodians, Chinese, Koreans, South Asians and Vietnamese men and women reported being hit regularly in their childhoods.
However, Statistics Canada’s 2014 report points out that the actual number of children who’ve experienced domestic physical abuse is unknown because of four reasons.
Firstly, there is no national survey equivalent to the General Social Survey for children to fill out. Secondly, most cases go unreported to the authorities because children simply do not know whom to talk to. Thirdly, children often have a fear of consequences – like being abused more severely for speaking up.
The fourth reason is the most important factor to understanding why most family violence cases go unreported, and why children such as Delaney grow up in fear of their parents: corporal punishment is expected, accepted and even respected in Asian communities.
Physical discipline has long been ingrained into the customs of South Asian countries, including China, India, Singapore and Pakistan.
The thinking of preserving family unity traces back to Confucianism, writes Barbara Lee, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, in her 2016 doctoral thesis. However, in the patriarchal Asian society, Confucius’ teachings of peace and harmony are forgotten when parents use their hands to silence disobedient kids.
Gina Kim, a 20-year-old Korean Canadian whose parents are also immigrants, says her parents are very traditional and that physical punishment was common in their country after the Second World War.
“I think that’s what they grew up with, so that’s all they really know how to do,” says Kim. “I think they think it’s a surefire way to get me to stop doing what I was doing because it’s scary and it hurts.”
The 2001 report continues on to say, “Socially sanctioned violent behaviour is thus commonly found in societies where unequal power relations and hierarchies are strong,” highlighting the caste systems and racial segregation of many South Asian countries.
Kim, a third-year geography student at Western University, says she and her older brother have been physically disciplined throughout their lives in various forms, but mainly through sharp hits with household items.
“I remember when I was younger, three to five years old, they would hit us at the back of our knees with a plastic pole,” she says.
Kim added that this form of punishment caused her to feel resentful towards her parents.
“For a very long time I thought they were evil and they didn’t deserve my love or attention,” says Kim. “I felt like I couldn’t trust them or open up to them because I was so scared of being hit. It really fractured the relationship between me and my parents.”
Physical and Emotional Impacts of Childhood Abuse
A 2016 Statistics Canada study of adults who had been physically abused in childhood suggests there is a link between their traumatic pasts and poorer health in adulthood. Therefore, because Asians make up a majority of the adults who have experienced physical abuse in childhood, they are more likely to suffer poorer physical and mental health.
The study showed that children who experienced physical abuse suffered with more stress, had a potential for increased heart rate and blood pressure and showed more systemic inflammation – a sign of weaker immune systems.
As for the emotional and psychological effects of physical punishment on children, a child and family therapist at Canoe Therapy says that that kind of complex trauma can have serious effects on the brain.
Amber Rutherford speaks about two types of neurological behaviour changes: hyperarousal and hypoarousal. The former explains kids who are jittery and feel unsafe in their environment, while the latter refers to kids who numb themselves or experience dissociation. Some children externalize their pain through hitting others, while others internalize their pain. This can manifest itself in short-term impacts like stomach aches, skipping class and self-loathing.
Longer term impacts, Rutherford says, can also occur because abuse literally “scars the brain.” Victims of abuse can have cognitive, emotional and developmental stunting. She gives an example of an eight-year-old child who learned to walk while being abused. “If they’re triggered later on in life, sometimes we find that that person stops walking,” she says. “The body remembers.”
Delaney personally feels like her parents’ physical abuses have taken a toll on her and her two sisters. She said all three of them have clinical depression – her 12-year-old sister showed signs when she was only in grade 3. “We all believe that [our parents] were the root of it (depression). There was definitely neglect,” says Delaney.
A Contrasting Opinion
Moosa Imran grew up knowing he wasn’t like the other kids in his class. His parents couldn’t send him to his room when he misbehaved, because his family all shared rooms. Him and his older brother didn’t have cell phones that their Pakistani immigrant parents could take away. So the 20-year-old grew up understanding the corporal punishment.
“The only thing that made sense for them to do was get physical,” the Ryerson journalism student says calmly.
The determining factor in why Imran was able to come to terms with, and have peace about, his parents’ physical punishment lies in how they would talk to him afterward.
Imran says his mother would explain after beating him why he deserved the physical punishment, so that once he turned 13, he had learned from his mistakes enough that both his parents could discipline him using only their words.
Imran also realizes that his case is an isolated one, because most of his friends in the South Asian community who have experienced childhood abuse have separated themselves emotionally, and oftentimes physically, from their parents.
Canada’s Legal Definition of Abuse
There has been much debate over the relevance and necessity for section 43 of the Criminal Code, which reads: “Every school teacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”
This Canadian law, which has existed since 1892, allows corrective force to be used as long as it “does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.” This condition of the clause is very vague, which allows for any interpretation, and thus any physical or violent behaviour from guardians.
Justice Louise Arbour was one of few judges who opposed section 43, according to a publication by the Supreme Court of Canada. She said it was a “violation of children's security,” and because of the lack of judicial agreement over what punishment was “reasonable under the circumstances,” it wasn’t a sufficient guide for parents and teachers.
Mae-Tuin Seto, senior counsel and legal services manager for Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, says that while the law doesn’t explicitly ban physical means of discipline, the organization does not condone it. “If you’re hitting any child, and you’re starting to leave a mark, you could be charged with physical assault. There’s a difference between spanking and hitting a child with a branch (i.e. a Chinese wooden cane).”
The Singaporean Canadian mother of two suggests parents try alternative non-physical methods of discipline, such as “time-outs, speaking to the child in an age-appropriate manner, [and] withdrawing privileges.” She also suggests parents have a safety plan, such as going to a friends house to calm down if they are angry.
“In order to make sure our children – who are also our future citizens, future leaders, future workforce, our future parents – have a chance at life, we need to protect them from young.”
The Next Generation
All three university students agreed that they would not hit their own children in the future.
Kim swears, “I won’t even hit my dog.”
Delaney can see a clear difference in her wellbeing since moving out of her parents’ house. “I’m much happier, my older sister is much happier [and] I haven’t been having a lot of episodes with my depression lately.”