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Spare the rod and spoil the child? Why was physical punishment ok in the past but not so today?

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In recent years, spanking or beating our kids have become largely unacceptable. From a psychological and biological standpoint, ample research have emerged that beating kids could lead to trauma and epigenetic changes - leading to the kid growing up to be violent or distant. Or it might strain the relationship between parent and child - where the child grows fearful or resentful of the parent. Finally, there seem to be much better ways, e.g. patient explanation or reward conditioning to discipline children - physcial punishment seems to reflect ineptitude in parenting. 

But there are two persistent rebuttals.

First, there is a perception that kids are less resilient and more entitled these days. A retiring teacher recently shared with me that most kids are well aware of the climate they are in - that they hold power over adults because one group of adults can be turned on another (e.g. parents on teachers, the public on parents) Any form of negativity, be it physical punishment, a scolding, or even criticism - is generally frowned upon and can be blown up. Most kids own a mobile phone and are very comfortable videoing and sharing about their lives. Additionally, adult behaviour has also been shaped. With more emphasis on the importance of being encouraging and greater affluence and comfort in life, parents have veered towards being too protective. The combination of more entitled kids and more protective parents leads to less resilience - kids find it harder to accept and learn from failures and setbacks. 

 

Second, most of us grew up with our parents giving us the odd spank or two (or three or four). And we turned out ok. We didn't suffer from trauma or hate our parents, and only a small number eventually developed anti-social or violent behaviour. Some in the older generation hold on to the belief that a certain amount of punishment seems somewhat beneficial, building more resilient and more 

 

So which view is right? Obviously, physical punishment is a small part of Is parenting an improvement from the past - where we replace punishment with encouragement? Or does a complete shift away from punishment contribute to kids who struggle to accept their shortcomings and failures?

 

We probably all have an opinion on this (obviously this is not a strict dichotomy but we have leanings one way or another). 

But before debating our conclusions, how about we take a deeper look at what really is at play.

(Obviously, there's a lot more to bringing up a child, discipline vs respect, resilience vs entitlement than physical punishment. To keep this article at a reasonable length, we're just going to examine one aspect of physical punishment)t. 

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Our understanding takes us (unsurprisingly) to look at our brains - the most amazing mechanism we know. It regulates almost everything we experience in life and performs a mind-boggling range of functions. 

There are 2 particular features of our brain that are critical here:

 

The first is the main cognitive function our brain performs: it is constantly creating our own subjective reality, by reconciling our perception of the external environment and our internal state and experience. 
 

Some examples:

  • Your flight got delayed. In one instance, someone from the airline company comes up to apologise profusely and informs you about the reason for the delay and the expected waiting time; in another, there is no word from the airline company at all. Same scenario, same you. But one change in the external environment changes how you react. 

  • The same person asks for the same favour with the same tone at the start of the day. If you're tired, stressed, or just had a major quarrel, you are less likely to say yes. If you had just had a great night out or just received some terrific news (i.e. your favourite rugby team won), you're far more likely to say yes. 

  • Or something I saw just the other day at a meeting. Two people suggest the exact same idea about 2 minutes apart after a presentation. The first was a junior member who had the reputation of being critical. In contrast, the second person was a rising star in the company, in the good books of the big boss who had just praised his suggestions after the previous presentation. Naturally, the first person was ignored, while everyone jumped on the bandwagon after the second person had shared.

But what does this mean for parents disciplining kids?

Let's consider the external environment for kids 20-40 years ago.

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Parents then had just lived through either or both World War 2 and the Cold War, when times felt harder. Education rates were lower. Manufacturing and agriculture were still the dominant industries then, and a larger proportion of people held jobs with some physical element. And there was far less prevalence and proliferation of technology to occupy kids.

What this meant was that parents continued to adopt practices passed down by their parents, including disciplining kids through physical punishment. 

 

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Parents then had just lived through either or both World War 2 and the Cold War, when times felt harder. Education rates were lower. Manufacturing and agriculture were still the dominant industries then, and a larger proportion of people held jobs with some physical element. And there was far less prevalence and proliferation of technology to occupy kids.

What this meant was that parents continued to adopt practices passed down by their parents, including disciplining kids through physical punishment. With less technological distractions, kids fo

 

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