Media Releases

Spare the rod and develop the child

July 26, 2011

Study suggests non-corporal discipline aids children’s executive-functioning ability

TORONTO, ON – Chil­dren in a school that uses cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment per­formed sig­nif­i­cant­ly worse in tasks involv­ing “exec­u­tive func­tion­ing” – psy­cho­log­i­cal process­es such as plan­ning, abstract think­ing, and delay­ing grat­i­fi­ca­tion  – than those in a school rely­ing on milder dis­ci­pli­nary mea­sures such as time-outs, accord­ing to a new study involv­ing two pri­vate schools in a West African coun­try.

The find­ings, pub­lished by the jour­nal Social Devel­op­ment, sug­gest that a harsh­ly puni­tive envi­ron­ment may have long-term detri­men­tal effects on children’s ver­bal intel­li­gence and their exec­u­tive-func­tion­ing abil­i­ty. As a result, chil­dren exposed to a harsh­ly puni­tive envi­ron­ment may be at risk for behav­ioral prob­lems relat­ed to deficits in exec­u­tive-func­tion­ing, the study indi­cates.

The study – by Prof. Vic­to­ria Tal­war of McGill Uni­ver­si­ty, Prof. Stephanie M. Carl­son of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta, and Prof. Kang Lee of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, involved 63 chil­dren in kinder­garten or first grade at two West African pri­vate schools. Their fam­i­lies lived in the same urban neigh­bor­hood. The par­ents were large­ly civ­il ser­vants, pro­fes­sion­als and mer­chants.

In one 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.

While over­all per­for­mance on the exec­u­tive-func­tion­ing tasks was sim­i­lar in the younger chil­dren from both schools, the Grade 1 chil­dren in the non-puni­tive school scored sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than those in the puni­tive school. These results are con­sis­tent with research find­ings that puni­tive dis­ci­pline may make chil­dren imme­di­ate­ly com­pli­ant – but may reduce the like­li­hood that they will inter­nal­ize rules and stan­dards. That, in turn, may result in low­er self-con­trol as chil­dren get old­er.

“This study demon­strates that cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment does not teach chil­dren how to behave or improve their learn­ing,” Prof. Tal­war said. “In the short term, it may not have any neg­a­tive effects; but if relied upon over time it does not sup­port chil­dren’s prob­lem-solv­ing skills, or their abil­i­ties to inhib­it inap­pro­pri­ate behav­iour or to learn.”

Despite the age-old debate over the effects of cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment, few stud­ies have exam­ined the effects on exec­u­tive-func­tion­ing abil­i­ty. This new study uses a qua­si-exper­i­men­tal design to derive data from a nat­u­ral­ly occur­ring sit­u­a­tion in which chil­dren were exposed to two dif­fer­ent dis­ci­pli­nary envi­ron­ments. The par­ents of chil­dren in both schools endorsed phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment equal­ly, sug­gest­ing that the school envi­ron­ment can account for the dif­fer­ences found.

There are many fur­ther ques­tions that remain unan­swered. “We are now exam­in­ing whether being in a puni­tive envi­ron­ment day in and day out will have oth­er neg­a­tive impacts on chil­dren such as lying or oth­er covert anti­so­cial behav­iors. Also, we are pur­su­ing the long term con­se­quences of expe­ri­enc­ing cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment. For exam­ple, what would chil­dren’s cog­ni­tive and social devel­op­ment be 5 or 10 years down the road?,” said Prof. Kang Lee.

The find­ings are rel­e­vant to cur­rent con­tro­ver­sy. “In the U.S., 19 states still allow cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment in schools, although more of them are now ask­ing for par­ent per­mis­sion to use it. With this new evi­dence that the prac­tice might actu­al­ly under­mine children’s cog­ni­tive skills need­ed for self-con­trol and learn­ing, par­ents and pol­i­cy mak­ers can be bet­ter informed,” said Prof. Stephanie M. Carl­son.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Chris Chipel­lo
Media Rela­tions
McGill Uni­ver­si­ty

Joy­ann Cal­len­der
Media Rela­tions
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

Diane Cor­many
Media Rela­tions
Col­lege of Edu­ca­tion and Human Devel­op­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta

About Social Devel­op­ment

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