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Commentary: Spare the rod, respect the child — it might be less painful for all in the long run

If the research shows caning kids is ineffective and has long-lasting negative effects, why do parents still do it? The answer lies in our cultural context — which we have the power to change

Society somehow allows a double-standard when an adult canes a child, says the author.

Society somehow allows a double-standard when an adult canes a child, says the author.

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If there were ever required reading for parents, the recent study on physical discipline in Singapore would be it.

Conducted by Singapore Children’s Society and Yale-NUS College, the 17-page report looks at parental disciplinary practices here, with specific attention paid to the use of physical punishments.

The findings — that Singapore parents frequently beat and shame their kids — shouldn’t come as a surprise, since these deep-seated cultural practices are the norm in Asia.

Even so, the study is worth close attention for two reasons:

  • It’s the first time local data has been collected about the prevalence of and attitudes toward physical punishment in Singapore
  • The report provides further evidence for what research has long shown: Childhood beatings are not only ineffective in teaching moral values, they are also consistently associated with increased aggression, poorer emotional regulation, and lower self esteem — with these negative effects lasting well into adulthood.

LET’S CALL A SPADE A SPADE

As groundbreaking as the study is, however, I do have one quibble with it: I disagree with the use of the term “physical discipline”.

Let’s call a spade a spade, and not hide behind euphemisms any longer.

Beating a child isn’t discipline. It’s abuse.

If your knee-jerk reaction is to have a great hue and cry over that statement, you’re not alone. Every time I say this to my clients, they balk and immediately turn defensive, exclaiming: “No, I’m not abusing them! I’m just teaching them a lesson. I would never cross the line and harm them!”

Hear me out. Make one small tweak to the line: “I beat my child to teach him a lesson” - swop out the word “child” for “wife” and it becomes “I beat my wife to teach her a lesson.”

No matter how lightly that husband hit his wife, or what the misdemeanour was, or how well-intentioned he was in meting out the punishment — we wouldn’t call that discipline. We’d call that battery, assault, and yes, abuse.

It’d be the same thing if an adult slaps another adult, or if an adult hits an animal. Somehow, though, society allows a double-standard when an adult canes a child.

CULTURAL NORMS

If the research is so clear — that physical punishment strains parent-child relationships and is linked to poorer mental health outcomes — why does the cane still wield such power in Singapore households?

A large part of the answer lies in our cultural context.

When corporal punishment is normalised locally — whether in schools, on tv shows, or in the judicial system — parents inadvertently get the message that physical penalties are acceptable.

Indeed, as one parent in the study put it: “Our prison also canes, so it’s okay for me to hit my children.”

Another major factor is the belief that: “My parents caned me, so it’s my turn to cane my kids.” The study authors referred to this as the intergenerational transmission of physical punishments.

BREAKING THE CYCLE

Breaking this cycle is no mean feat, particularly in a place like Singapore — because it requires an honest look at one’s own childhood, and perhaps even an admission that one’s parents were wrong.

That’s probably one of the toughest things an Asian person can do; after all, any attempt to question an elder’s decision is summarily dismissed as unfilial or ungrateful behaviour.

In reality, this sort of binary thinking — where one is either a filial son/daughter or an unfilial one — helps no one.

A little nuance and flexibility could help:

  • I can admit my parents used outdated and violent parenting methods, and my parents are good people who did their best with the knowledge they had
  • I can acknowledge there were hurts in my childhood, and I had a happy childhood
  • I can realise my parents made mistakes, and I still love, respect, and am grateful for them

The point here is that two seemingly-conflicting statements can be true at once; they don’t have to be connected by a “but”.

Making this self-reflection process harder, however, is the following pervasive view: “I was spanked as a child, and I’m fine.”

When clients say this to me, I challenge them to define what they mean by “fine”.

Usually, they’ll point to their educational qualifications or career achievements. But when I probe deeper and ask about the less-quantifiable stuff — how they manage difficult emotions (particularly rage and disappointment), or how they deal (or don’t deal) with conflict, or how solid their sense of self-worth is — they quickly realise that perhaps they’re not as successful as they had thought.

If this is what it looks like to be “fine” — adults with poor emotional regulation skills and low self-esteem — surely we must aim a little higher for our kids.

A KINDER WAY FORWARD

So where do we go from here?

First, let’s reframe our understanding of the word “discipline”. Etymologically, “discipline” comes from Latin’s “disciplina”, which means instruction or knowledge — closer to the idea of a disciple in the midst of formation.

This is very different from the punitive sense of the word we’ve now come to use today. Honouring the word’s original meaning could help us be clearer about our role as parents: Our children’s first guide, not their first abuser.

Second, let’s find the courage to let go of dated cultural norms that don’t serve us anymore. I’ve always been proud of Singapore’s nimble policymaking prowess, and its ability to adapt as contexts shift. Protecting our youngest citizens from physical punishment is a worthy and desperately-needed measure.

Third, I find it absurd that we go to driving school to learn how to drive, or attend an academic institution to learn about a particular subject; but for the most sacred, important job we’ll ever do — raising the next generation — we get zero education.

This is easily remedied by ensuring that evidence-based, respectful parenting practices are taught to all parents, parents-to-be, and caregivers.

This includes education on how children’s brains work, so that parents have developmentally-appropriate expectations of their kids.

What does this look like in real life? Let’s say a preschooler is drawing on a wall, despite being repeatedly told not to do so.

Instead of defaulting to “this child is so naughty” and bringing out the cane, being aware of the child’s brain development can help us see what’s happening more objectively.

The neuroscience is clear that the part of the brain responsible for impulse control only fully develops in one’s late-20s — so to expect a 3-year-old to resist the urge to draw on a wall is basically wishful thinking.

It’s like getting angry with a baby for not being able to wear their own pants — just that instead of a physical limitation, this is a cognitive one.

To be frank, staying calm while handling a misbehaving child takes a lot of effort and practice — especially when we weren’t raised like this ourselves. It’s far easier to revert to “muscle memory” and smack the little artist’s offending hand.

This doesn’t mean parents should be permissive — we must still set boundaries firmly and teach our kids the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. The key is doing so kindly, without resorting to physical or psychological punishments.

Even as someone who teaches this stuff, it’s still hard for me to stay emotionally regulated — particularly when I’m in public and perceive that others are judging my parenting approach.

But it is doable, and protecting my children’s mental, emotional, and physical health is so worth it.

There are many names for this sort of parenting approach: Positive parenting, conscious parenting, mindful parenting, gentle parenting… The list goes on.

I personally prefer the term “respectful parenting”, as it cuts to the heart of the matter: Treating every human — even the littlest among us, even when they can’t speak — with respect and dignity. If we wouldn’t be smacking our spouse, we shouldn’t be smacking our children — even out of love.

After all, as parent education pioneer Magda Gerber once said: “Many awful things have been done in the name of love, but nothing awful can be done in the name of respect.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Kelly Tay is a parenting coach, founder of Juicy Parenting, and mother of a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son. She teaches a “Respectful Parenting for Asians” course, showing parents how they can drop the cane, stop the yelling, and actually enjoy parenthood.

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cane children discipline parenting

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