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Should we be using Physical Punishments on our child?

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions not retribution.

In Singapore, it is not all that unusual to hear about caning as a method of discipline. While its use is certainly in decline, that thin supple stick that many of us once feared as a child is still a commonly found item.

Today, I hope to provide some information regarding the use of physical punishment with children and the potential pitfalls known to be in association of it.

The reasons we imagine to be; why do we do it?

There are a few reasons why parents often resort to caning their children. One of the most common reasons is that they simply do not know a different way. A child who has been whipped (literally) into shape by their parents has been shown only that one method of educating a child. When they in turn become parents, they imagine a lack of options. After all, they were brought up this way and turned out fine (at least in their imagination). So, why not use the same tried and tested way rather than risking some other new method that may not do the job half as well? Of course, it helps that our society justifies it by circulating this well known saying of “Spare the rod, spoil the child”.

Another reason is the apparent effectiveness of it. Imagine if you need your child to be ready for school. He has yet to dress, and you need to be out of the door in two minutes or you would be late for your meeting with the big boss. Shouting does not seem to work, because he is still dilly dallying. Picking up the cane, however, seems to speed things up considerably. The next time a similar situation occurs, parents would likely fall back on the same method.

The reasons we should be listening to; why shouldn’t we do it?

  • One: Modelling issues

Just like how we inevitably learn from our parents, your child is going to learn from you, for better or worse. You are their role models. They will observe your actions and see if it fits the fancy words you tell them. If you are preaching about being kind, gentle, and loving, while using physical punishments on them, I am not so sure how convincing you will be. Not only do you give them the impression that it is acceptable to say one thing and do something else entirely, using physical punishment to get them to comply with instructions may also be teaching them that might makes right, that it is okay to make others listen to us by way of force. This line of argument is also supported by an article published by SingHealth ( Notably, one of the quotes that stand out in the article is that, “the message sent to children through corporal punishment is one of aggression”.

And then we look at our state of the world and wonder why we have wars or violent crimes. We are part of the problem! Modelling the use of physical punishment may propagate the idea that we can use violence as a means to achieve what we want, creating a cycle of violence that we do not desire.

As a therapist, I often come across children who engaged us for ABA-VB behavioral intervention at around ages 6-9, because their aggression is out of control. This is often the result of using corporal punishment to discipline a child, as he or she learns that, “once I have enough build and strength, I will take control”. The product of aggression is agression.

  • Two: Psychological impact

Also mentioned in the article listed above are potential psychological impacts that the child carries with them into their adult life. A study on the state of research of effects of physical punishment published by the Social Policy Journal of New Zealand Te Puna Whakaaro (Smith A. B., 2006) shows there is an association between physical punishment and increased child aggression, antisocial behaviour, lower intellectual achievement, poorer quality of parent-child relationships, mental health problems (such as depression), and diminished moral internalisation.

For a more detailed look at each aspect, feel free to explore the source link provided at the end of the article. However, a mere look at the list of associated consequences with physical punishment should make it evident that the use of physical punishments has many more cons than pros. In addition, the apparent effectiveness in eliciting short-term compliance – one of the common reasons why parents often fall back on physical punishments – is a mixed bag with some studies showing effectiveness and others not (Smith A. B., 2006).

  • Three: A thin, blurry line

Lastly, when we take the stance that physical punishment is okay, there is a fine, fine line between what is acceptable and what is not. This means that there is the very real risk of going overboard with it. This is especially the case because most parents tend to be emotionally compromised (read angry) when they dole out punishments. Allowing themselves to use physical punishment as a method of disciplining the child means exposing themselves to potential opportunities of going too far whereas there is little risk of such incidents occurring should the method be entirely discarded to begin with. More than often, physical punishment brings no more benefits than just a quick fix.

I understand that caning is a method of discipline that is culturally accepted in Singapore. But does that make it justifiable? Or actually, the real question we should consider is this:

Can we do better?

Leave your comments.

Written by Felicia


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