'Spare the rod and spoil the child' still has strong resonance even in countries where corporal punishment has been abolished, such as Britain 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.
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.
In a recently published study in Social Development, data sheds some light on this issue. Experimentally, it is difficult to establish a causal relation between corporal punishment and child outcomes. Researchers can't 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 for offences from forgetting a pencil to being disruptive in class.
In the other school, children were disciplined for similar offences with the use of time-outs and verbal reprimands. The parents of children in both schools endorsed the use of mild physical punishment at home. 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.
The evidence clearly suggests that corporal punishment does not effectively teach children how to behave and does not improve their learning. So why would an adult use such a method of discipline at all when there are other methods available? If children can be effectively disciplined and learn in the process, what then is the justification for using physical punishment for control?
The views expressed by the authors are personal.