Our research into the impact of corporal punishment on learning clearly indicates punitive discipline is no way to teach children
“Spare the rod and spoil the child” still has strong resonance even in countries where corporal punishment has been abolished, such as the UK and Canada. In the US it is still allowed in many states and is used extensively as a means of discipline in other countries around the world. The debate is often impassioned, coloured by our moral, ethical and cultural beliefs. Advocates suggest that the use of corporal punishment leads to more immediate compliance and suppression of undesirable behaviour in children; some even claim that there has been a decline in the standard of student behaviour due to the abolition of corporal punishment. On the other hand, it is argued that it leads to negative psychological, physical and educational outcomes.
How do we discover if “sparing the rod” spoils or harms the child? In a recently published study in Social Development, we report data that sheds some light on this issue. Experimentally, it is difficult to establish a causal relation between corporal punishment and child outcomes, positive or negative. Researchers cannot simply randomly assign children to an environment where they receive beatings and one where they do not. However, we were able to use a quasi-experimental design to address this question by capitalising on naturally occurring situations in which children are exposed to punitive physical or non-punitive inductive discipline.
We compared children in two elementary schools in West Africa due to a naturally occurring policy shift in which private schools had the option of maintaining their traditional physical discipline tactics (now officially outlawed in public schools in that country) or using more modern, non-physical forms of punishment. In the punitive school, discipline in the form of beating with a stick, slapping of the head and pinching was administered publicly and routinely for offenses ranging from forgetting a pencil to being disruptive in class. In the other school, children were disciplined for similar offenses with the use of time-outs and verbal reprimands. The parents of children in both schools had similar occupations and endorsed the use of mild physical punishment at home. This situation presented a unique opportunity to test the adage.
The main outcome of interest for us was children’s executive functioning, which refers to cognitive control over your own thoughts, actions and emotions, and is closely linked to the development of the prefrontal cortex. Research on the factors that help or hinder the development of executive function is important, given accumulative evidence on the long-term consequences of deficits in executive functioning in early childhood for behavioural problems including substance abuse, criminality, obesity and even poor credit ratings.
We tested executive functioning with a variety of established measures, such as a card-sorting game that requires shifting flexibly from one set of rules to another, and asking children to wait for a gift without peeking at it, which requires impulse control. We were divided in our predictions of the results. On the one hand, there is research and plenty of parent and teacher anecdotes to suggest we would find greater compliance – hence more self-control – among children who were continually exposed to the imminent threat of physical punishment for wrongdoing. On the other hand, such children might be so focused on these external sources of control over their behaviour that they would fail to internalise the rules of conduct, resulting in lower self-control. As it turns out, there was some support for both. While overall performance on the executive functioning tasks was similar in the kindergarten children from both schools, the children who had been exposed to the school environment longer in the non-punitive school scored significantly higher than their counterparts in the punitive school.
Our research suggests that a harsh punitive environment may have long-term detrimental effects on children’s executive functioning. It appears the more corporal punishment there is over time, the greater the negative effects on children. It should be noted that the corporal punishment used in the schools in our study is not of the mild gentle “slapping” type. Rather, it is systematic use of aversive physical discipline as a means of reinforcement to teach children not to misbehave so that learning will occur.
The more adults engage in harsh punitive discipline like corporal punishment, the less likely they are to engage in more cognitive methods of behavioural control, such as explaining to the children why they should act in a certain manner. While punitive methods of discipline have immediate effects of compliance, they may result in decreased likelihood that children will internalise rules and standards. This may, over time, actually undermine children’s executive functioning and result in lower self-discipline.
The evidence clearly suggests that corporal punishment does not effectively teach children how to behave and does not improve their learning. Given the risks it poses, the question is: why would an adult use such a method of discipline at all when there are other methods available? Do the risks outweigh the benefits of immediate compliance? If children can be effectively disciplined and learn in the process, what then is the justification for using physical punishment to control them?