78% of parents in Singapore carry out corporal punishment. One mama shares her thoughts on caning, hitting, and spanking children and offers parents more effective ways of ‘disciplining’ their children
There are a few popular Chinese children books and comic series that I often reread with my kids because they are funny and resonate with young children. As the stories feature characters that are young students, there are sometimes scenes where a character bemoans, “I failed my exam! I’m going to get caned by my mum!” or an angry parent threatens their child who is still lazing in bed despite the alarm clock ringing, with, “If you don’t get up and go to school now, I’m going to smack you!”
When we first came across such scenes, my two daughters – then aged six and eight – were confused, and they asked, “Do parents beat their children?” My children’s confusion is understandable. After all, my husband and I have never smacked or caned our children.
I explained to my daughters that some parents do hit their children as punishment and as means to correct behaviour, and this was especially so in the past. But there are also parents, like their dad and I, who have found other effective means of disciplining and coaching their children so that there is no need to resort to such punitive treatments. Some might know that our parenting style is positive/conscious/gentle/peaceful/respectful parenting where we use parenting strategies backed by neuroscience and psychology.
But I can see that such scenes are written into books because physical punishment of children – be it a smack on the hand, a spanking on the butt or a swat with a cane – is still common practice in our society. In fact, 78% of parents in Singapore carry out corporal punishment, according to a survey by YouGov published in 2019.
Detrimental effects of corporal punishment on children
I have to admit when I first saw the survey results when it was published, I was surprised; I had honestly thought the survey results would be close to 50:50. After all, over the past 20 years, research into physical punishment and their negative developmental outcomes for children have proliferated and today, scientific evidence on the detrimental effects and ineffectiveness of corporal punishment on children is well-documented.
Corporal punishment on kids may affect normal brain development
Just to name a few: In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics noted mounting evidence that supports its call to ban physical discipline. It wrote, “Corporal punishment – or the use of spanking as a disciplinary tool – increases aggression in young children in the long run and is ineffective in teaching a child responsibility and self-control. In fact, new evidence suggests that it may cause harm to the child by affecting normal brain development.”
In a 2013 article published by the Society for Research in Child Development, psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff said, “We now have enough research to conclude that spanking is ineffective at best and harmful to children at worst. We also know that a range of professional and human rights organisations condemn the practice and urge parents to use alternative forms of discipline.”
Gershoff was behind the widely-cited 2002 meta-analytic study which examined 62 years of research on corporal punishment and concluded that corporal punishment was associated with ten negative outcomes such as increased child aggression and antisocial behaviour, with the only positive outcome being immediate compliance.
Why are parents still hitting their children?
If the scientific research and evidence are there – and the internet and our library network ensure resources like books and articles are easily at hand – why are people sticking to an archaic form of discipline disproven by science?
Is it simply because one was brought up with corporal punishment? The YouGov survey noted that eight in ten (81%) Singaporean parents were subjected to corporal punishment growing up, with those who grew up being physically punished more likely to conduct the same punishment on their own children, compared to those who did not (84% vs. 54%).
Why “I was spanked as a kid, but I turned out fine” is flawed
Well, we’ve definitely heard pro-corporal punishment arguments like “I was spanked as a kid, but I turned out fine”. Like many other adults who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I, too, had endured the occasional smack on the hand or butt, or cane swatting by my mother for misbehaviour. But I have never suffered from aggression or mental health issues, been in abusive relationships or displayed criminal behaviour, all of which are adverse effects research has linked to being spanked as a child. But because I turned out ‘fine’, does it mean it’s okay to do the same to my children?
The answer is no because such arguments are anecdotal fallacies – arguments based on the personal experience of one person or a small number of people. It is akin to saying “if I’m not adversely affected as far as I can tell, it must be okay”. It is also the same as saying “I did drugs when I was a teenager but my brain was not damaged, therefore it is okay to do drugs” or, “I did not wear car seat belts when I was a kid, but I did not die in a car accident, therefore it is okay to not wear seat belts.”
I’m sure we’ve all heard of somebody’s relative who smoked and/or drank alcohol excessively who lived to 90 years old. My maternal grandfather sure did. But that doesn’t mean it is all right for me to smoke and drink excessively. Many don’t do so because we know from scientific research that those who do so have higher health risks.
It is the same with corporal punishment. Indeed, not everyone who was hit as a child grows up with physical or psychological problems but scientific evidence shows the potential for hitting to be harmful, so why put our children at such risk?
Perhaps we condone corporal punishment because we believe corporal punishment is a form of discipline which works, like how a good lashing with the cane will teach my boy never to steal again or a smack for every mark deducted from for a test will motivate my girl to study harder or a few spanks to the butt will teach my kid not to bully other kids.
The goal of “discipline” should not be to punish but to teach
The problem with the above reasoning is that these days, most people associate “discipline” with punishment or consequences. But the goal of “discipline” – whose root is the word “disciple”, which means “student” or “learner” – should not be to punish but to teach.
“Effective discipline should aim for two primary goals, which is to get our kid to cooperate and do the right thing, and most importantly, instruct our children in ways that develop skills and the capacity to resiliently handle challenging situations, frustrations and emotional storms that might make them lose control,” wrote neuroscientist, Daniel Siegel, and psychotherapist, Tina Payne Bryson, in their New York Times bestseller, No-Drama Discipline.
“This internal, second major goal of discipline is about helping them develop self-control and a moral compass, so that even when authority figures aren’t around, they are thoughtful and conscientious. It’s about helping them grow up and become kind and responsible people who can enjoy successful relationships and meaningful lives,” the experts wrote.
Corporal punishment – temporary compliance but at what cost?
Corporal punishment may induce temporary compliance, but it neither guides our children in the above nor nurtures their emotional intelligence. And in the instance where physical punishment is used to deter children from violence and bullying, it simply teaches the wrong thing.
As renowned child psychologist, Haim Ginott, wrote in his best-selling parenting guide, Between Parent and Child, “We should not consider physical punishment as a response to our children’s provocation or our own irritation. Why not? Because of the lesson it demonstrates. It teaches children undesirable methods of dealing with frustration. It dramatically tells them, ‘When you’re angry or frustrated, don’t look for solutions. Hit. That’s what your parents do.”
Some may also perceive that corporal punishment had worked for them. But has it, really?
“Misbehaviour and punishment are not opposites that cancel each other; on the contrary, they breed and reinforce each other. Punishment does not deter misconduct. It makes the offender more skilful in escaping detection. When children are punished, they resolve to be more careful, not more obedient or responsible,” Ginott wrote.
In fact, as Ginott noted, “One of the worse side effects of physical punishment is that it may interfere with the development of a child’s conscience. Spanking relieves guilt too easily: The child, having paid for the misbehaviour, feels free to repeat it.”
More effective ways to parent
Perhaps we subject our children to corporal punishment because we believe there are no other alternatives. But what if I tell you there are effective ways to parent your children without having to resort to hitting/yelling/shaming, yet allow your kids to grow up kind, empathetic, resilient, and with strong mental and emotional health? (The recommended book list below is a good place to start.) I know we so need these strengths and values in our children, especially when stress and mental health issues are on the rise in our society.
I don’t blame my mother for using corporal punishment when I was younger. She and the older generations did the best they could with handed-down parenting methods; those were times when studies on corporal punishment, brain science and childhood psychology were unavailable to them. But in current times when the research is robust and the information easily available, the onus is on parents and educators to stay informed.
As author L.R. Knost said, “The job of each generation is to solve more problems than they create and to lift up the next generation to be better than the last. Simply repeating the past does neither.”
Corporal punishment = spanking = caning = hitting
The research and alternatives are there but the question is do we want to keep an open mind and can we be bothered to take the first step to find out about them? We are often diligent when it comes to our children’s physical health, like how we now know to use BPA-free milk bottles and avoid trans-fat and high sugar content in their diets; the same diligence should be extended to our children’s emotional and mental health. There are research-based and human rights-based reasons for not spanking our children, but there is also another important reason not to spank our children, and that is a moral one.
As Gershoff wrote in her article, “By using the euphemistic term spanking, parents feel justified in hitting their children while not acknowledging that they are, in fact, hitting. We as a society have agreed that hitting is not an effective or acceptable way for adults to resolve their differences, so it should not be a surprise that hitting children, like hitting adults, causes more problems than it solves. It is time to stop hitting our children in the name of discipline.”
- No-Drama Discipline: the bestselling parenting guide to nurturing your child’s developing mind by Daniel J. Siegel MD (Author), Tina Payne Bryson (Author)
- Between Parent And Child: The Bestselling Classic That Revolutionized Parent-Child Communication by Haim G. Ginott (Author)
- The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R. Knost (Author)
- Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Laura Markham (Author)
- The Science of Parenting: Practical Guidance on sleep, crying, play, and building emotional well-being for life by Margot Sunderland
- The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
- How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber (Author), Elaine Mazlish (Author)
- Parenting for a Peaceful World by Robin Grille