Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Child discipline 

A team of six researchers from the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) recently studied 230 Singaporean parents aged between 23 and 52 who had gone to seek medical attention for their children aged between four and 12. The study found that 68 per cent disciplined their children just by reasoning with them. About one in 10 of the parents used only caning, while one in five used a combination of both methods.

In a letter to The Straits Times published today, Dr Daniel Fung, deputy chief of the IMH’s Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, wrote:

The findings showed that parents who used reasoning as the sole disciplinary method reported the least behavioural problems but an intermediate amount of emotional problems in their children. Parents who used caning as the sole disciplinary method reported the most behavioural and emotional problems in their children. Parents who used a combination of caning and reasoning as their disciplinary method reported the lowest level of emotional problems but an intermediate amount of behavioural problems in their children.

The findings suggest that reasoning alone might not always be the best form of disciplinary practice across all situations; and caning as the sole disciplinary method should also be discouraged. The study shows that there is no one perfect way of disciplining children. Depending on the environmental situation, the child’s temperament and parental beliefs, parents may want to consider using various types of disciplinary methods to help mould the next generation.
The study also indicates that the old authoritarian style of parenting and child-discipline may be quickly going out of favour in Singapore.

Having said that, one always has to interpret such findings with caution. The study was conducted as a questionnaire, so the parents were free to respond as they saw fit. Bearing in mind that caning is nowadays considered controversial and no longer the norm that it once was, some parents who do cane might not have admitted so.

The study also found correlations between disciplinary method and child behaviour. It is tempting to think that the former causes the latter. However, things are not always so straightforward.

Correlation does not necessarily imply cause-and-effect, and even when they do, the direction is not always obvioius. For example, does caning by parents lead to more behavioural and emotional problems in children, or do behavioural and emotional problems in children lead the parents to cane them more often?

The Straits Times today also published another letter from a reader, who thinks that caning does not work.

Do we need studies to be done and their results validated in order to be convinced that caning of children cannot be justified on any grounds?... I have yet to come across any logical, reasonable and infallible arguments to support this act of violence against children that should aptly be described as criminal.

It is a fallacy that punishment is effective. It seems to work — but only to achieve one thing: temporary compliance.
The writer’s concern for children is commendable. As for his question on the need for studies to be done on this matter, I think the answer is yes.

Without studies, we are left with myths and dogma on which to base our actions. Without studies, too many people prefer to just stick to the status quo or prevailing wisdom. This is often a good idea, as it has been tested by time. Unfortunately, it is also often a bad idea when circumstances change.

The IMH study, while not perfect, provides additional insights on the links between disciplinary methods and child behaviour. And additional insights should be welcomed.

For those interested in yet more insights on how to discipline children, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports has a website on family life that includes a section on this topic.


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