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Punish or praise?

Published: 
Thursday, November 9, 2017

In Trinidad and Tobago, the subject of corporal punishment both at home and in schools has been a divisive one, raising much discussion about the role of parents in preparing their children to integrate as decent citizens in our society through discipline.

There are many who believe that stern discipline keeps a child on the right path. However, arguments in favour of the retention of corporal punishment are not often rooted in scientific evidence that supports its success in shaping a child’s behaviour, but rather in longstanding traditions and proverbial adages.

Our perception of what is normal and acceptable is drawn from what we ourselves have experienced and internalised as features of our upbringing. Many parents believe that it is their duty to discipline their children in the manner they see fit.

Turning to behavioural psychology for an answer can bring us to BF Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. In short, it states that our future behaviour is shaped by the consequences we experience in response to our current actions. A child’s actions can be either reinforced and encouraged, or punished and discouraged.

Research supports the idea that children’s behaviour can be more effectively changed by encouraging the behaviours we wish to see, rather than punishing the behaviours we do not wish to see. Praising children for a job well done (such as tidying up after themselves, or completing their homework etc) encourages the child to continue such good behaviours more effectively than punishing them for not doing it.

This does not only apply to children. The principle of the power of praise and recognition has been used by workplace leaders to motivate and inspire others into action.

Next, Emile Durkheim’s Labelling Theory describes how placing a negative label on a child could alter the child’s self-identity. Corporal punishment has a labelling effect, in that children can internalise an image of themselves as “bad”, “mischievous” etc. When this happens, their behaviour can gradually worsen as they come to accept this idea of themselves. In essence, what children believe you expect from them can influence what they become.

At its best, corporal punishment appears to only stop the unwanted behaviour temporarily, and can fail to teach children the value of self-discipline. Rather than understanding why their behaviour is inappropriate, the child might only stop out of fear of the parent’s anger. It also feeds the idea that violence can be used to solve problems and can damage future social relationships as traits like aggression are promoted. The bond between parent and child is likely to be damaged as fear replaces love and mutual respect in the relationship.

The discussion of corporal punishment must also consider the nature of the adult being moulded by this experience. Punishment hinders a child from learning how to resolve conflict effectively and teaches the child that those in positions of authority can exert power to achieve their goals. The problem with demanding unquestioned obedience is that it conditions the mind to accept what is given by those in positions of authority, and can enforce the idea that those who challenge the status quo will be punished.

Jonathan St Louis-Nahous is President, Guild of Students 2017/2018, at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine