Evidence shows using physical punishment to teach children discipline is counterproductive.

LAST week, yet another case of alleged abuse inflicted by an adult to a child went viral on social media.

A video of a young child being allegedly beaten by an elderly woman had the nation shocked by the violence inflicted on the young child. This comes just two months after the death of Mohamad Thaqif Amin Mohd Gadaffi linked to alleged beatings he received in school inflicted with a rubber hose. These incidences are a stark reminder of how easily corporal punishment can be meted out as a form of punishment with disastrous consequences for the victims.

Many parents in Malaysia, as in other parts of the world, have themselves experienced caning, slapping, pinching, or even spanking and hitting as a child. Some grew up witnessing its regular use and, as a result, see corporal punishment as a normal, effective way to set boundaries, instil discipline and correct “bad behaviour”. According to global United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) data, around six in 10 children between the ages of 2 and 14 worldwide are subjected to physical punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis.

Sentiments justifying the use of corporal punishment runs deep; the general attitude amongst adults we have spoken to is:
“I was hit as a child and I turned out okay.” These were the same arguments that fuelled the debate in the 1980s in the United Kingdom leading up to the ban of its use in public schools by the British Parliament in 1986.

However, times change and widespread evidence tells us that using physical punishment to teach children discipline is counterproductive. Instead of teaching children good behaviour, punishment in the form of caning, spanking and humiliation has been found to cause psychological, behavioural and developmental problems.

In 2015, a Unicef research paper demonstrated that children who experienced corporal punishment had decreased math scores compared with those who had not experienced it.

The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children published a working paper last year, which reviewed the impact and associations of corporal punishment on children. It found that children who had experienced corporal punishment were more likely to engage in bullying, lying, cheating, running away, truancy, and had increased involvement in crime. Rather than encouraging children to comply with rules and instructions, they are instead motivated not to get caught for their wrongdoings.

Children who are physically punished at home are twice as vulnerable to corporal punishment in schools because they are more likely to show behavioural problems and aggression at school. This makes them targets for corporal punishment in attempts to control and instil discipline. It results in a cycle of violence leading children to resolve issues through aggression rather than dialogue.

Undoubtedly, children need rules and discipline — and it can just as effectively be imparted without lifting a hand against a child. Banning corporal punishment does not mean that we leave a child to do whatever he or she pleases.

For those looking for concrete alternatives to corporal punishment, Unicef has developed handbooks with four principles of positive discipline in mind:

A DISCIPLINARY response must be relevant to the misbehaviour;

THE response must be proportional to the offence;

FOCUSED on correcting the behaviour rather than humiliating the child and aimed at rehabilitation rather than retribution; and,

THE discipline imposed must teach the child rather than focus on “paying back” on the offence.

Within the different principles, the caregiver, whether a parent, teacher or guardian, can then customise appropriate responses to suit the child and the context of their misbehaviour.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. In some instances, the teacher or the parent could ask the child to think of what they have done and ask them to offer an oral apology. In some others, especially when the misbehaviour is persistent or detrimental to others, sanctions can be imposed and privileges can be withdrawn, such as limited television time. In the event in which the child causes damage to another person, the child can be asked to make a public apology or contribute to repairing the damage where feasible.

So, why not give it a try? Positive discipline places the best interest of the child at the heart of every action and helps a child learn self-discipline without fear.

It is about engaging them to understand the reasons behind the unwanted behaviour and then taking steps to remedy it — through dialogue, counselling, interventions and the setting of ground rules. The use of positive discipline motivates good behaviour rather than punish bad behaviour. As the child feels valued and supported to achieve his fullest potential, he will then be more inclined to show respect and empathy to both adults and other children.

Such forms of discipline teach peaceful conflict resolution and self-regulation which are the bedrock for building peaceful, just and sustainable societies.

Thaqif’s death should make us question our actions towards children and if we have protected them enough from violence and abuse. The next time we are tempted to lift a hand against a child, we need to remember that corporal punishment brings more harm than good — both for children and for us. An adult’s strength will always be superior to that of a child’s, and it is our role to nurture and teach with patience rather than to instil fear and discipline through force.

Marianne Clark Hattingh is a Unicef representative in Malaysia

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