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Commentary: Physical punishment and why few parents openly admit they cane, smack or spank

Many parents do cane their children. It's the frequency and context in which corporal punishment is meted out shape the impact caning has, says Cherie Tseng.

SINGAPORE: Everyone has an opinion on everything parenting related: From co-sleeping choices to the intensity of enrichment lessons.

But there are fewer things more divisive – and morbidly fascinating – as the discussion of parenting and discipline, specifically, the relevance and role of physical punishment in disciplining a child.

To cane or not to cane, that is the question.


Let me draw the battle lines for you.

In one camp, which counts popular, modern day literature and research on its side is the “Caning is brutal, archaic and abusive” narrative.

An article by the American Psychological Association, tersely titled “the case against spanking” shares that studies have shown physical punishment, including spanking, hitting and other means of causing pain, can lead to increased aggression, anti-social behaviour, physical injury and mental health problems for children.

READ: Commentary: Let’s move away from caning and corporal punishment for our kids

READ: When caning of children becomes abuse: Lawyers explain the legal parameters

This camp also includes those who believe caning doesn’t banish misbehaviour. The same study quotes Alan Kazdin, a psychology professor and director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic that we need to give up “this horrible thing that does not work".

Recent CNA commentaries and articles have echoed this sentiment that all parents need to do is expand their repertoire of parenting resource and they would realise they need not resort to physical punishment in raising their child.


Which leads us to the other side and the reality that physical punishment is still actively used in parenting today contrary to popular sentiment.

(Photo: Unsplash/National Cancer Institute)

Most parents, if you ask them, would admit — albeit in hush tones and surely not on social media — that they have on occasion smacked, spanked, hit or caned their child.

That is not just in Asian homes either. Three quarters of Americans agree or strongly agree with the statement, “It is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking” according to a 2015 study, with other surveys estimating that 80 per cent have spanked their kids at some point.  

If research suggests physical punishment is detrimental, why do parent still apply a spectrum of physical punishment today?

The answer quite simply is compliance, and the role of physical discipline in getting the child to comply with a desired mode of behaviour.

READ: Commentary: Does caning still have a place in modern-day parenting?

READ: Commentary: Time out for your kids can be useful if well planned

In a seminal study that spans 62 years, Professor Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University found a strong association between corporal punishment and increased immediate compliance on the part of the child.

It seems for all the long-term downsides physical punishment is associated with, it fulfills a real immediate, here-and-now need for compliance.

Professor Gershoff also qualifies that her findings do not imply all children who have experienced physical punishment turn out to be aggressive or delinquent.

A variety of situational factors, such as the quality of the parent-child relationship, can moderate its effects.


So do we smack because it works and the ends justifies the means? This is where the study gets tricky to understand as it breaks down how the frequency and severity of the corporal punishment affect the trade-offs.

A child in pre-school. (File photo: TODAY) File photo: TODAY

The more often and more harshly a child was hit, the more likely they are to be aggressive or to have future mental health issues.

This seems to track with commonplace feedback on the matter.

Many parents who include physical punishment in disciplining their child will tell you that they themselves were on the receiving end of physical punishment and are none worse for wear.

Parents whose emotional pre-disposition may cause them to cross the line between appropriate physical punishment and physical abuse should be counselled against using physical punishment in disciplining entirely. 

Yet other parents can use mild to moderate corporal punishment effectively, a study conducted in response to Professor Gershoff’s led by University of Berkeley, California’s Professor Diana Baumrind, known for her work on parenting styles, argued.

This is echoed by Dr Kim Lian Rolles-Abraham, a senior clinical psychologist in Singapore who finds it more useful and reasonable to remind parents that harsher physical punishments like caning should never be conducted in an emotionally charged environment.

READ: Commentary: An intense urge to hurt someone, when anger gets out of hand for some

READ: Commentary: Why shaming your children on social media makes things worse

This break also gives parents the chance to moderate their own emotional state.

Her big beef with physical punishment is the intent to shame. Her words reminded me of the times I witnessed my aunty purposefully caning my cousin at the back of his legs so his friends can see the “zebra cane marks” and know that he had been punished.

“This is not helpful in communicating the message that it is action that is bad, not the person,” Dr Rolles-Abraham cautions.


We need a broader conversation about the place caning has in modern parenting. Most research have focused on the impact physical punishment has on the child. But there’s two parts to this crazy dance, isn’t there?

(Photo: Unsplash/Charles Deluvio)

Positive Parenting Coach Jolie Tan says we need to consider its impact on caregivers too.

“While caregivers might notice an immediate reduction in the frequency of problem behaviours, physical punishment may not result in long-term change … the use of punishment on its own does not teach children how to act appropriately.”

The problem arises if the caregiver mistakenly believes that physical punishment is effective. They may persist in the use of physical punishment when the child reverts to their problem behaviours.

Over time, the intensity and frequency of the caregiver's use of physical discipline might escalate leading them to look less at other means of discipline, according to Ms Tan.

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Elizabeth Wu, a proponent of the Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) modality also reiterates the need to include the parent as an active participant in disciplining a child.

“Parents need to become aware of their own needs and learn how to communicate these needs, become proficient at recognising and listening to their child’s needs, and be willing to negotiate solutions with the child that benefit both parent and child,” she said.


Amidst the flurry of debate, I wonder if this blanket decrying of caning as a form of punishment might be a tad hypocritical when the greater Singapore judicial system includes caning as a form of punishment.

“Do we expect adults who have not been caned as children to accept and understand that caning is associated with punishment?” muses Dr Rolles-Abraham at the tail end of our discussion.

Perhaps a larger debate on caning as punishment meted by the state looms on the horizon.

READ: Commentary: How do we raise sons who will never hit women?

Circling back, the reason, I’d chance, that this debate keeps resurfacing ever so often is because there is no easy solution.

The broad-strokes mantra seems to be: Good parents try not to cane, better parents go for parenting classes to try and find better, non-caning ways at discipline.

It’s a hard sell given that modern day parenting is rushed, overwhelming, demanding and everyone is a critic online and off.

Cherie Tseng is Chief Operations Officer at a local fintech company, a mother of three and editor with The Birthday Collective.

Source: CNA/sl


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