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First-of-its-kind study finds more than half of S'pore parents who frequently cane, spank children think it's ineffective

SINGAPORE — Among parents who frequently use physical means such as spanking and caning to discipline their child, about half of them think that such disciplinary methods are ineffective.

First-of-its-kind study finds more than half of S'pore parents who frequently cane, spank children think it's ineffective
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  • Half of the parents who frequently physically discipline their child think that such disciplinary methods are ineffective
  • This was one of the findings from a study done by Singapore Children’s Society and Yale-NUS College
  • It is said to be the first study of its kind done in Singapore that focused on physical discipline
  • The study found that one of the reasons why parents saw the need to hit or spank their child was because it was an “intergenerational transmission”
  • Researchers also found that non-physical discipline such as reasoning often yielded more productive outcomes

SINGAPORE — Among parents who frequently use physical means such as spanking and caning to discipline their child, about half of them think that such disciplinary methods are ineffective.

Even though the child may be compliant immediately after the punishment, it did not achieve what these parents wanted — which was for the child to learn a moral lesson, for instance.

This “disconnect” between attitudes and actual behaviour was uncovered in a study by Singapore Children’s Society and Yale-NUS College, which researchers said is the first study of its kind done in Singapore focusing on physical discipline. 

The findings, released on Thursday (Oct 6), also showed that for young adults who had experienced physical forms of discipline, they reported outcomes such as a strained parent-child relationship. However, they would be more likely to use physical discipline on their future children as well.

The study was based on a survey of 747 parents and 667 young adults, as well as a series of interviews done with 20 parents and 25 young adults, during the first half of 2021. 

The young adults surveyed and interviewed were between 18 and 25 years old, and did not have children of their own. 

About 81 per cent of the parents surveyed have a university degree. The national average was 36 per cent in 2021, the study report stated. 

Asked about this discrepancy, the lead researcher, Dr Cheung Hoi Shan, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Yale-NUS College, said that the survey was disseminated online during the Covid-19 pandemic, which may explain why parents of higher education levels might have had greater access to it. 

“We hope to conduct future studies where we cover more diverse populations. It would be much more insightful,” she said. 


The researchers found that out of the parents surveyed, 44.8 per cent of them used physical discipline, also known as corporal punishment, at least once in the past year. About 30 per cent used it more frequently. 

Of this 30 per cent, about half (53.7 per cent) considered physical discipline to be never effective or not effective most of the time, while 60 per cent considered it to be never acceptable or not acceptable most of the time. 

Of all the parents surveyed, 27.4 per cent of them believed that physical punishment is never effective, while 42.8 per cent believed it to be not effective most of the time. This means that about 70 per cent generally believed that physical punishment was ineffective. 

Infographic: Samuel Woo/TODAY

As for whether parents thought physical punishment was an acceptable disciplinary method:

  • 26.5 per cent believed it was never acceptable
  • 49.1 per cent felt it was not acceptable most of the time
  • This means about 75 per cent believed that it was unacceptable

For young adults, 66.8 per cent felt that physical discipline was ineffective either all or most of the time, while 72.4 per cent believed that physical punishment was not an acceptable disciplinary method either all or most of the time. 

Asked if physical punishment must be used as a method of discipline, 83.5 per cent of parents and 80.6 per cent of the young adults said that they disagreed. 

(Parents) point to it as being a 'generational passing down', because their grandfather hit their father, and their father hit them, now it's their turn to pass it down to their children.
Ms Clarissa Choo, research officer at the Singapore Children's Society

Among the reasons why parents saw the need to hit or spank their child was the intergenerational transmission and mirroring of societal values. 

Ms Clarissa Choo, a research officer at the Singapore Children's Society and one of the researchers involved in the study, said: "Parents) point to it as being a 'generational passing down', because their grandfather hit their father, and their father hit them, now it's their turn to pass it down to their children." 

Ms Choo added that parents also took cues from the Singapore judicial system, which metes out caning as one of its punishments, as an influence to using physical discipline.

She noted that when young adults who had been physically disciplined as children were asked if they would physically punish their future children, "a number" of them said that they would, which is an indication of "potential intergenerational transmission". 

"The narratives that they gave us very much mirrored what the parents said," Ms Choo said. 

For instance, the young adults said that they may give their future child several chances when they commit wrongdoings, and may eventually physically discipline them when they continually repeat their misdemeanours, or they might hit their child if they feel "very angry". 


The study stated that parents typically resorted to physical discipline when: 

  • Their child's misbehaviour was deemed to be severe, such as when it involved fighting or hurting others, or carried with it an element of danger such as playing with sharp objects 
  • When children were younger and it was hard to reason with them, or when a child was sensible enough to understand that it was used out of parental love or as a result of the child's wrongdoing 
  • The parents were feeling stressed, frustrated or angry, which could lead to the impulsive use of physical discipline

The consequences of using physical discipline on parents included: 

  • Feelings of guilt and regret, where parents wondered  whether there could have been better alternative methods
  • Having negative emotions of pain and hurt after caning their children. This was for a majority of the parents who reported feeling angry before using physical discipline

For the young adults who were physically punished as children, they reported that there were several negative consequences of physical discipline as well: 

  • They felt that physical discipline had "little instructive value" and only taught them how to avoid future discipline, with many saying that it was a distressing emotional experience involving fear and pain 
  • It resulted in a distant and strained parent-child relationship in the long-term 

Researchers said that overall, the findings suggested that parents' use of physical discipline was associated with poorer parent-child relationships and poorer emotional regulation for children.


The findings from the study largely resonated with parents and young adults interviewed by TODAY.

They said that physical discipline has the potential to do more harm then good to children. 

However, there were some parents who disagreed with the findings, saying that physical discipline had its place in the repertoire of disciplinary approaches they use on their children. 

One parent, a school teacher who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan, said that he canes his children on occasion and it is among the various disciplinary methods he employs.

However, when the 45-year-old canes his three children — who are aged between nine and 12 — he does not do it haphazardly, but tells them why he is doing it.

“I will ensure that i will explain in a consultative way why they have made this mistake,” Mr Tan said.

“They will acknowledge their mistake and they will feel like it warranted some form of physical punishment.”

Multimedia content creator Lester Kok, who has a six-year-old son, said that he does not resort to physical discipline. 

The 38-year-old said that he would typically reward his son when he exhibits good behaviour, and verbally scold and rationalise with him when he misbehaves. 

"Generally, fear of pain and fear out of love and respect for parents are two different things to me," Mr Kok said. 

"If I cannot justify why I hit another adult physically, then it is also not justifiable why I should hit my child." 

Mr Kok added that when he was young, his own father would frequently cane him. That was when he realised that "corporal punishment doesn't work". 

Young adults who spoke to TODAY also agreed that physical discipline would not be effective if meted out excessively. 

Mr Shale Lee, 19, said that when he was a child, his parents rarely hit him.

There were fewer than 10 occasions when they smacked him with a ruler on his palm, but only when he did "something really bad" such as being involved in a fight in school. 

He said that when he did get hit, his parents would normally explain the rationale behind it, and that the rarity of the occasions meant that he took the lessons seriously. 

“If I did get hit by my parents, my thought process was (that) what I did was obviously so wrong that my parents felt that hitting me was the only way for me to learn,” he said.

He added that on other occasions when he committed less severe wrongdoings, his parents would engage in non-physical discipline, such as reprimanding him about his actions.

“But if they (hit me) more frequently, I think it would have resulted in a worse relationship between parent and child,” he added. 

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The study, while focusing on physical discipline, also uncovered other forms of discipline that were prominently used among respondents. 

One such method was what it called "psychological discipline", which involved practices such as:

  • Love withdrawal, where children were made to believe that their parents’ love was dependent on their good behaviour
  • Shaming
  • Insulting
  • Shouting
  • Other forms of emotional manipulation

About 72 per cent of parents used such psychological approaches frequently over the past year, the study discovered. 

Dr Cheung, the lead researcher, said that children who had received a moderate level of physical discipline and a high level of psychological discipline "have poor parent-child relationships, and poorer emotional regulation and self-esteem". 


On the other hand, non-physical discipline, which included practices such as reasoning or offering children something else to do as an alternative to the undesired behaviour, often yielded more productive outcomes. 

Almost all respondents, or 99.1 per cent, frequently use this non-physical form of discipline. 

Dr Cheung said that such a method is "more inductive and more instructional". 

For instance, such discipline would involve telling the child to start or stop doing something, while also explaining to the child why it was wrong for them to do that. 

Agreeing, Ms Vivyan Chee, deputy director of Oasis for Minds Services at Singapore Children's Society, said that even though it is ideal for parents to discipline children purely through non-physical means, it is "not possible to be the perfect parent". 

"There will be times when we have very limited bandwidth... there will be moments where we just snap at our child even though that wasn't our intention." 

Ms Chee advocated the "five to one" concept, where parents try to have five positive interactions with the child for every negative interaction.

Positive interactions may include smiling when the child approaches, or complimenting the child. 

The Singapore Children's Society said in a statement on Thursday that the study has shown that "there are diverse approaches, often a mix of methods, when it comes to the discipline of children by parents and caregivers", and that parents are "the best judges to determine the discipline styles in their household and for each individual child".

The organisation — which provides care and guidance for vulnerable children and does advocacy work to protect the well-being of children, youth and their families —  ultimately hopes that the study would "shine the spotlight on the impact of less ideal methods” and rally agencies and stakeholders to come together and help parents and caregivers build desirable skills in positive parenting. 

Related topics

parenting children discipline caning Singapore Children's Society Yale-NUS College

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