Spare the rod and spoil the child – this popular adage is most commonly heard when parents discuss parenting issues. So is it right to wield the cane and cow the child into submission or should you ‘spoil’ him? 

Despite the saying, experts share that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Most of all, it doesn’t have to affect a couple’s relationship negatively. An effective way of teaching your child to differentiate right from wrong is actually through reasoning and appropriate disciplinary methods that do not have to involve physical punishment.

Childhood Trauma

Rosalind Quek may be a mother of a 3 year old now but she has clearly not forgotten her own childhood or how her mother used to cane them. 

“I can still remember my 12-year old brother cowering in a corner in tears as my mother caned him, even though I was only 12 then,” says the 32 year-old. “I still remember the exact words that went through my mind then – she’s not a good mother and I’ll never do the same to my children.” 

Now, whenever Rosalind has a difficult situation or encounters a big fight with her mother, she gets flashbacks of how much she hated her mum when she was caned as a child, especially when she felt that the punishment was not justified. 

Losing Your Cool

One challenge that most parents can relate to is losing their cool. When that happens, the natural instinct is to shout, scream and reach for the cane. This act of irrationality is often caused by love mixed with emotional frustration. But to your child, and possibly even your spouse, the reason why your child is being punished may not be clear to him or her and can result in resentment and frustration. Over time, these negative feelings can manifest in an estrangement between the parents and the child as well.

Finding a Win-Win Solution

Not everyone can get away with traumatic experiences from their childhood positively, and your spouse may not know that your reaction stems from bad childhood incidents. 

Dr Sharon Fernando, Senior Clinical Psychologist from Dynamics Therapy Centre for Kids, defines discipline within child development as teaching self-control and modelling socially desirable behaviour. This way, you set a good example for your child, as well as win respect from your spouse. Children who were victims of aggressive punishments tend to demonstrate rebellious behaviours or even withdrawal, further emphasising the consequences of what short-term violence can bring about in the long-term. 

If you have a spouse who believes in caning, explain the possibility of long-term effects such as those mentioned above. Emphasise that it is important for the both of you to find points of agreement and have consistent principles so the child is clear about the rules. This practice also helps to strengthen the bond between you and your spouse. “Caning may be an effective short-term ‘solution’ to reduce negative behavior, but it is positive reinforcement and understanding that helps a child to grow up learning how to handle conflict with more self-reliance,” explains Dr Fernando.

The Emotional and Psychological Effects

Samantha Tan, a 28-year-old journalist, shares, “As a teenager, I used to be so angry with my mum when she caned me because it was really embarrassing. I’d think of drastic measures such as committing suicide just to make her feel bad for the rest of her life. Even as a mother myself now, I feel that she shouldn’t have just used caning as a solution.” 

According to Dr Fernando, cases like Samantha’s indicate that while young children may not understand the role of shame in physical punishment, an adolescent who has to hide her scars behind long sleeves, is not just experiencing the physical pain, but also the emotional and psychological components, which can have very detrimental effects in the long-term. “If a child internalises the pain, it may bring about stress, anxiety, and even depression,” adds Daniel Koh, psychologist at Insights Mind Centre.

Dos and Don’ts of Effective Discipline

While it’s easy to give in to temptation and lash out at the child when you’re feeling angry or frustrated, it’s not the right way to teach your child. You and your spouse must stand as each other’s pillars of strength with constant gentle reminders and support. 

Though it takes a lot more time and effort to discipline a child through explanations, this difficult process is worth it because it will help your child understand exactly why certain actions are wrong. Remind each other that rather than meting out punishment, what is truly beneficial to increasing desirable behaviour is positive reinforcement. In addition, parents who treat their children with respect, understanding and sincerity are those who respond helpfully, thus enabling their children to gain the emotional and social resources to react appropriately to life events. 

Dr Shona Lowes, Chartered Clinical Psychologist, Equilibria Child and Family Psychological services, adds that it is when positive behaviour in a child is recognized and there is a reward – praise, privileges, and positive talk – for the child, that you are more likely to achieve good results, while creating a more positive parent-child relationship. 

There are many other ways you can both explore to encourage good behaviour. These include giving extra play time for a child who completes his homework on time, and treating him to his favourite snack if rules of the house have been followed. Be consistent in reinforcing that good behaviour begets trust and rewards. Dr Lowes shares an example: when your child arrives home on time, let him know that you are pleased with him, and when he continues to be on time, be sure to let him know that you can now trust him to come home on time.

Manage Expectations

When a child does not meet up to your expectations, either in school results or behaviour, it may not be because he is not trying hard enough. Your child may have a learning disability like dyslexia or a condition like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which interferes with normal learning. To conceal the fact that he feels bad, he may end up behaving badly. So both of you should focus on the child’s achievements (no matter how small) instead, and help your child through specialist tuition to enable him to achieve better grades and develop more positive self-esteem. 

When a child does something wrong and is being caned for it, the only message he will get from his parents is, “It is wrong for you to hit anyone, but it is ok for me to hit you.” Instead of raising the rod and blaming the child, find out what led to the act – was your child provoked; was he frustrated by something; did he want something from the other child and did not know of a better way to deal with it? 

This is when you and your partner can play tag team to effective result: one of you can have a private talk with your child to find out what went wrong without making any judgment nor implementing punishment; while the other can use the information to offer the right solution to your child. Take turns to play these roles. Once both of you have a better understanding of the situation, you can help your child learn alternative and more appropriate ways to solve his problem. 

Key Takeaways

How you behave as a parent will affect your child’s perspectives and behavior, says Dr Shona Lowes.

  • Raising your voice, shaking your head, or using physical punishment when your child makes a mistake. This makes a child feel bad about himself and he could possibly believe that he is never able to do the right thing or please his parents, so why bother trying?

  • Explaining what went wrong, but leaving the solution open ended may be good if your child and you are able to find a mature solution. However, for some children, whilst this helps them to understand their mistakes, they may not know how to do things differently in future, and end up repeating their mistakes. 

  • Explaining what went wrong with suggestions on solutions. This helps the child to understand his mistake and how to do things better. If he behaves more positively, the parent must recognize this behaviour and encourage him, so the child will more likely repeat the positive behaviour.

Extracted from Real Love Works (April - June 2010)
Adapted from an article first published on the marriage.central website.