When I was a child, my mother was never one to spare the rod.
Getting up to mischief? Cane.
Disrespectful to elders? Cane.
Laziness and undone homework? Cane, cane, cane.
While these episodes were not some of my fondest childhood memories, caning was my mother’s way of instilling discipline in us, and it was always quick to achieve the effect it desired.
Whenever my brother and I were out of line, petulant or mischievous, the dreaded instrument would make its appearance and we would be put in our place.
So when a Singaporean mother made headlines here for caning her daughter in public two weeks ago, I was frankly nonchalant. That is, until I actually watched the video of the incident that was making its rounds online.
In the six-minute long clip, the woman was seen caning her daughter below a block of flats at Jurong West. It was a sight that tugged at the heartstrings as the latter wailed and pleaded loudly to no avail. The woman’s husband, who initially watched on, then grabs a tree branch and strikes the girl on her legs.
The clip sparked a war of words, notably on The Straits Times’ Facebook post on the incident, as some condemned the mother’s actions as barbaric, violent and irresponsible.
Concerned for the child’s mental and emotional development, Facebook user Elvin Goh commented: “Violence begets violence. The child will become emotionally scarred and psychologically unstable with the use of corporal punishment.”
His assessment found support with child psychologist Dr Penny Tok who warned against parents overusing the fear factor. Speaking to The Pride, Dr Tok, who is in private practice, said: “Caning makes a child comply purely out of fear of punishment… [it] serves no role in helping the child judge or understand why their behaviour was unacceptable to begin with.”
She observed that the child will learn to follow instructions out of fear of the parents, rather than because they respect them. This disrupts the trust between them and creates an unhealthy dynamic within the family.
For Facebook user Sufiah Hamzah Hungerford, she believes that reasoning with children is more effective than physical punishment. She commented: “I am a parent of three kids in their 20s. I am quite strict with my kids but never punish them in public. I do not agree with caning either. If you want to raise smart kids, you talk to them, not beat them up. My kids have grown to be responsible and wise adults now, without me being abusive!”
Although there is a wealth of child psychology literature that overwhelmingly corroborates this perspective, and many Western societies have embraced this school of thought, parents in this part of the world don’t seem quite ready to give up their canes yet.
An example to capture this clash of ideology was when a Malaysian couple were jailed in Sweden in 2014 for physically punishing their children for not performing their daily prayers. In 1979, Sweden was the first country in the world to ban corporal punishment on children.
In contrast, many Singaporeans, just like Malaysians, grew up with a cane in their homes, so they unsurprisingly see nothing wrong with applying the same methods for their own children.
In a perspective that was echoed repeatedly on The Straits Times’ post, Facebook user Rosalind Lee commented: “Spare the rod and spoil the child. In my generation, my siblings and I got more than our fair share of canings when we were young. For every little misdeed we got caned. No harm to our emotional or mental growth.”
As someone who was caned as a child, I can see where Lee is coming from. We don’t see ourselves as aggressive, depressive, or displaying any of the ill effects the anti-caning camp warns of, and we believe we have turned out as mostly-normal and well-adjusted human beings.
And so based on our own experience, we think that caning is acceptable.
Yet, Dr Tok warned against giving caning a free pass too easily: “While some people do not carry the mental and emotional scars of caning with them into adulthood as they may have had buffers in life to protect them, like an overall good relationship with their parents, many more suffer longer term effects from it than they realise or may be willing to admit.”
For 31-year-old Jeff Low, the caning conundrum is not a matter of black and white. A coach for individuals with autism by profession, Low and his wife have a 3-year-old son, and they have wielded the rod when the situation called for it.
Differentiating their methods from indiscriminate caning, which Low sees as a form of child abuse, the couple has a set of steps and qualifications when they cane their son. They never punish him when they are angry lest they overreact to his actions, and never when the child makes a mistake, like if he breaks a cup and spills his milk.
Estimating that these instances of caning happen once a month on average, he explained: “We only use the cane in limited cases, such as when he throws a tantrum or is repeatedly unkind to his peers. In such situations, we first correct his attitude, words and actions, followed by warnings and cane him only when the behaviours persist.”
In contrast to the mother’s actions in the viral video, Low avoids caning his child in public. If a private space is not available, he brings his son to a quiet corner. “It’s not that we’re ashamed of being seen, but it’s to protect his self-esteem. Discipline is meant to teach and restore, not humiliate. Caning a child in full public view damages the trust between a child and his parents, in whose presence he should always feel safe to learn and grow.”
The line between abuse and punishment is not easy to define, as Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, told The Pride. While he felt that physical punishment can be effective when done consistently and not punitively, parents should shift their focus from punishing to educating their children instead.
Dr Lim said: “Should parents decide to use caning as a means to discipline, they must have already discussed this with the child. If a child does not respond to positive approaches, the bigger question is, why is that so? Is the parent not spending enough time with the child and do they not have a good relationship?”
Ultimately, the foundation of a healthy and happy relationship between parents and their children lies in trust and love. Both of these go out the window the moment parents raise the cane for a quick fix to cow their children into submission or start caning their children indiscriminately.
That’s why to Low, the most important step when he disciplines his child is how it ends, to reinforce the lesson.
“After the caning, we make it a practice that he apologises to us, and the people he offended. And most importantly, we always give him an affectionate hug at the end, hoping to teach him that there is always room for grace and reconciliation.
“It teaches him that all this is done not because we’re angry, but because we love him, and that’s very important.”