NZSM Online

Get TurboNote+ desktop sticky notes

Interclue makes your browsing smarter, faster, more informative

SciTech Daily Review

Webcentre Ltd: Web solutions, Smart software, Quality graphics


Corporal Punishment

Despite calls for a return to corporal punishment, there appears to be little faith in its effectiveness or appropriateness.

By Neville Blampied

The use of corporal punishment by teachers and parents continues to be a controversial issue in New Zealand. The Education Amendment Act 1989 made corporal punishment in schools illegal. Recently, attempts have been made to allow parents to decide on a school-by-school basis if they want corporal punishment in their school.

Proponents of the legitimisation of corporal punishment often appeal to a supposed widespread community endorsement of it, but there is evidence that such support is not as widespread as claimed.

In the mid-1980s, Elizabeth Kahan, then a Master's student at Canterbury University, conducted a survey on the acceptability of a range of punishments, including corporal punishment, in the Christchurch community.

She used a standard procedure for assessing the acceptability of any psychological treatment, called the Treatment Evaluation Inventory (TEI). This consists of a description of a problem case, a treatment for the case, and a 15-item questionnaire which provides a rating of the acceptability of that treatment.

Kahan's study used a fictional case of either a 10-year-old boy or a girl of normal intelligence, who was described as extremely disobedient to parents and teachers. The punishments used to deal with this problem were:

  • Time-out, in which the child was made to stand in a corner or go to another room for 2-10 minutes whenever he/she was naughty.
  • Response cost, in which privileges, such as TV watching, were forfeited for misbehaviour.
  • Reprimands, where the parent or teacher held the child by the shoulder, made direct eye contact, and delivered a firm reprimand, naming the child and specifying the bad behaviour.
  • Corporal punishment, consisting of a hard hit over the hand with a wooden ruler.
  • Considerable effort was made to get a representative sample of adult respondents, with ages ranging from 17 to 50. Forty six percent currently lived in a family with children and fourteen percent had adult children.

    Out of a maximum of 105, response cost and reprimands got a rating of 78; time-out was rated 69, and corporal punishment 51.5. To put these in context, other research has shown that scores over 80 represent high acceptability for a treatment. The use of positive rewards, for example, is rated typically between 85 and 95. On the other hand, scores less than 60 represent low acceptability. Use of electric cattle prods as punishment gets a score of about 30. Scores in the range 60-80 represent moderate acceptability.

    We can conclude that adult Christchurch citizens rated response cost, reprimands and time out as moderately acceptable, but corporal punishment as relatively unacceptable.

    Another way of looking at the data is to see how many people were completely positive about a particular punishment, such as by answering "Very acceptable" when asked "How acceptable do you find this punishment?"

    To answer this, I grouped the items into four categories, representing dimensions of:

  • approve-disapprove
  • fair-unfair
  • effective-ineffective
  • humane-cruel

As I expected from the overall acceptability scores, response cost and reprimands were equally acceptable, with about one-third of the sample endorsing them as "Very acceptable". One-quarter found time-out to be very acceptable, but only 13% had the same highly positive view of corporal punishment. Much the same pattern was shown for the fairness and humaneness rankings, except that even more people were positive about response cost and reprimands on this dimension, and even fewer were positive about corporal punishment.

Is it possible that the group was evenly split over corporal punishment, with about as many being for it as against it? We checked this possibility. For corporal punishment, proportionately more of the sample considered it to be ineffective and cruel than considered it effective and humane, showing clearly that the sample was not evenly divided over this issue.

There is a paradox here. Research by Jane and Jim Ritchie of Waikato University has shown that New Zealand parents commonly punish their children by hitting and smacking them. Indeed, the use of hitting and spanking children seemed to have increased between the Ritchie studies carried out in 1970s and 1980s.

This does not seem to agree with the finding that few people find corporal punishment effective, fair and generally acceptable, and quite a large number find it cruel and risky. Perhaps the age of the child in the case -- 10 years -- was a factor, in that parents may be less likely to use corporal punishment on older children. It is also possible that physical punishment is something that many parents do, without feeling particularly positive or optimistic about it.

One thing is, however, clear. There is no great enthusiasm in the general Christchurch community for corporal punishment of children.

Neville Blampied is in the University of Canterbury's Psychology Department.