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  • Subject area(s): International Relations
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The present study has three main objectives – firstly, it aims to investigate whether there are cultural differences between Malaysian and Western young adults in their attitudes towards corporal punishment. This study further explored whether there are any racial differences within the Malaysian sample in their attitudes towards corporal punishment. It also sets out to examine if participants who recalled facing frequent corporal punishment in their childhood have reduced levels of self-esteem. Each hypothesis will be individually examined and justifications for each outcome are further discussed and outlined.

Cultural Differences in Attitudes towards Corporal Punishment

H1: There will be cultural differences between Malaysians and Westerners in their attitudes towards corporal punishment (i.e. spanking).

The results revealed that there is a significant difference between Malaysians and Westerners in their attitudes towards corporal punishment, consistent with past research (Kumaraswamy & Othman, 2011; Mbikyo, 2012). H1 is supported. Within the Malaysian culture, most individuals grow up believing that corporal punishment is some form of training, which stresses the importance of self-discipline and obedience – concepts more or less absent from the Western culture (Chao, 1994). This explains why corporal punishment may have had a positive influence on Malaysian young adults’ attitudes, more so than that of the Westerners.

Racial Differences in Attitudes towards Corporal Punishment

H2: There will be racial differences among Malay, Chinese, and Indian races in their attitudes towards corporal punishment (i.e. spanking).

H2 had to be rejected; there were no racial differences between Chinese, Malay and Indian participants. According to Bornstein (1995), the type and function of behaviour can only be entirely understood when its cultural context is taken into account. Hence, the outcomes of the study may be due to the fact that these three races all share common practices and traditions as a result of having the same culture. This common culture can be explained from the individualistic and collectivistic perspective.

Differences in individualism-collectivism cultures shape individuals’ understanding and interpretation of the kinds of parenting styles, which according to Baumrind (1971), is categorised into authoritative, authoritarian and permissive parenting styles. As Malaysians are generally collectivists, most parents are believed to employ the authoritarian parenting style (Keshavarz & Baharudin, 2009) – the parenting style that usually goes hand in hand with corporal punishment (Aucoin et al., 2006; Chen, Dong, & Zhou, 1997). As such, Malaysian parents rarely perceive corporal punishment as unfavourable.

Such beliefs are communicated to their children from the early years through socialisation (Keshavarz & Baharudin, 2009), which can lead these children to develop similar positive attitudes towards corporal punishment. Parents are one of the most important agents of socialisation because they are in the child’s immediate context, a concept that is consistent with Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory. Family is an important agent of socialisation who not only shape a child’s development and understanding of the world, but also enforce and reinforce the practices of their respective cultures (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Additionally, children’s positive attitudes can be influenced by their own collectivist nature, which emphasises group cohesion and conformity towards parents and social groups (Keshavarz & Baharudin, 2009). Thus, if their parents and culture hold positive attitudes towards corporal punishment, children may develop similar views because of their tendency to conform.

Levels of Corporal Punishment on Self-Esteem

H3: Those who recalled experiencing frequent corporal punishment (i.e. spanking) in their childhood will have reduced levels of self-esteem

Findings did not support H3; recipients of frequent corporal punishment in childhood did not have reduced levels of self-esteem in young adulthood. These outcomes were consistent with Joubert’s (1991) research – spanking has no effect on children’s self-esteem. Nonetheless, not all research revealed similar results. Children who were subjected to physical punishment in their formative years grow up believing that its use is appropriate. Those severely disciplined in childhood were thus observed to rate punishment as more appropriate than those less severely disciplined (Kelder, McNamara, Carlson, & Lynn, 1991). This would explain the absence of adverse effects on self-esteem.

Research done more recently showed that children in authoritative families, who also had the highest academic achievement, had high self-esteem despite experiencing frequent corporal punishment (Fuller, 2011). Many scholars hypothesise that authoritarian parenting in collectivist cultures may actually promote positive child adjustment (Matsumoto & Juang, 2013).

Differences in outcomes are explained by the fact that Westerners’ and Asians’ perceptions of authoritarian parenting are disparate. As illustrated by Chao (2001), the meaning and significance of the authoritarian parenting style may have origins in cultural belief systems that are different from those of European Americans. According to the Confucian philosophy, Chinese parenting in child rearing is characterised by the notion of chiao shun, or training, which underlines the importance of close parental supervision to encourage children’s discipline, obedience and filial piety (Matsumoto & Juang, 2013). A Chinese parent will therefore perceive such parenting to be culturally appropriate as it is a reflection of love and concern for the child. European American parents, however, view such parenting to be authoritarian and over-controlling (Chao, 2001). Baumrind’s classification of parenting styles may not be an effective representation of parenting in other cultures. Although it affects the self-esteem of those from Western cultures, authoritarian parenting in Asian cultures is beneficial to the child and thus has no apparent effects on self-esteem.

Keshavarz and Baharudin (2009) also reported that if parenting behaviour is congruent with the values of one’s culture, children will be more likely to accept it. For instance, children will respond favourably if corporal punishment in their culture is an indication of love and concern rather than an unacceptable practice. This would explain why frequent levels of corporal punishment had no effect on participants’ self-esteem as it is not perceived to be threatening or undesirable among Malaysians, which constitutes the majority of whom received frequent corporal punishment in childhood (74%).

Moreover, the failure to find any associations between participants’ experience of corporal punishment in childhood with their present levels of self-esteem in the current study may have been due to the unreliability of retrospective memories. Scholars have frequently expressed their scepticism regarding the reliability of retrospective reports (e.g., Brewin, Andrews, & Gotlib, 1993; Halverson, 1988; Howard, 2011). The notion that it accurately represents what really transpired in the past has also been vigorously challenged (Lewinsohn & Rosenbaum, 1987). Oishi et al. (2007) took a step further, revealing that value-congruent events remain in memory longer and affects individuals’ retrospective frequency judgments of emotion when compared to events that are incongruent with personal values. For instance, if the young adult views corporal punishment negatively or if this practice is incongruent with their personal values, it may no longer be present in his or her memory in adulthood, resulting in an inaccurate recall of the frequency in which the individual had received corporal punishment in c
hildhood. However, contemporary studies have documented the reasonable accuracy of young adults’ retrospective reports of their childhood (Campitelli, Parker, Head, & Gobet, 2008; Potts, Belden & Reese, 2008), suggesting that there might be other factors pertaining to the unsupported outcomes of the present study.

One rationale could be the fact that self-esteem is affected by a miscellany of other related environmental factors. These may include bullying, trauma, society and media, belief systems, academic challenges, as well as disapproving authority figures (Lachmann, 2013). Since the young adult stage is a transitional period, many may experience an overwhelming amount of stress due to the need for readjustment and adaptation. Perceptions of whether they can or cannot face the responsibilities and obligations placed on them will thus affect their self-esteem.

Moreover, from post-adolescence to midlife, that is, the phase which encompasses the young adult stage, a general increase in self-esteem is observed (Wagner, Ludtke, Jonkmann, & Trautwein, 2013); so even if frequent levels of corporal punishment in childhood did, in fact, reduce one’s self-esteem, this effect is counteracted and cancelled off when they reach young adulthood. This would justify why the effects of corporal punishment on self-esteem were null in this study.

Strengths

The strengths identified in this study include the use of psychometrically sound questionnaires – Attitudes toward Spanking (ATS) Questionnaire (Holden et al., 1995) and Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965). These measurements are reliable and easy to score as the scoring method of 4-point and 7-point Likert scales are simple and straightforward. Such questionnaires are also advantageous because they allow various degrees of responses. With an easy mode of delivery, these questionnaires are utilised to effectively obtain participants’ opinions. Nonetheless, it is important to bear in mind the possible bias in these responses due to social desirability and the ambiguous nature of self-reports. In addition to being psychometrically robust, the questionnaires are comprised of only ten questions each and is therefore cost-effective; large amounts of information can be acquired from a large number of individuals within a short period of time.

One important significance of the present study is that it shed light about Malaysians’ attitudes towards corporal punishment. Over the past few decades, cross-cultural research regarding this disciplinary practice tended to focus on samples from China and Japan to represent the Asian community. This study thus filled the gap in literature, providing a new perspective of Asians by recruiting participants from Malaysia.

To date, no known research has touched upon the racial differences in young adults’ attitudes towards corporal punishment in Malaysia. Although differences between the three main races were not found, the findings are informative and they contribute to what is currently known in research regarding corporal punishment. This study also represents one of the few that addressed the relationship between corporal punishment in childhood and self-esteem in young adulthood.

Furthermore, this study focused on a sample of young adults, which is a far cry from the commonly researched sample of children. Young adults were targeted by the researcher because children may lack the required maturity to aptly judge the significance of corporal punishment; their emotions may influence their capacity to label whether it is a good or bad disciplinary practice. For instance, some may impulsively claim that corporal punishment is a bad practice just because of its aversive effects or because they simply dislike being punished.

Limitations

As with all studies, several limitations should be acknowledged. Some participants were not as fluent in English as others – the researcher failed to recognise that some participants do not employ English as their first language, which could possibly contribute to the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of certain concepts. During data collection, there were participants who did not understand the term corporal punishment even though it was explicitly defined in the survey. This was discovered at completion when participants were asked if they had understood the concept of corporal punishment. Some were found to naively proceed with the survey even though they did not comprehend the meaning of it. While the questionnaires have been validated in the West, such observations suggest that they may not be ideal when used in the Malaysian context.

The sample of this study concentrates on individuals from urban neighbourhoods who are fairly well-educated. This disregards individuals from the more traditional and conventional environments who may differ from the urbanised population in their attitudes towards corporal punishment. It is important to note, however, that varying degrees of urbanisation and westernisation may have influenced the practices and beliefs of child-rearing. Media exposure on global culture, which acquaints young individuals with Western behaviour, may pose as a challenge to the traditional families in Malaysia (Keshavarz & Baharudin, 2009).

Another limitation is that comparisons between cultures might have been unfair. Due to budget and mobility constraints, the researcher was unable to capture a representative sample of Asians. Instead, only Malaysian participants were recruited. The Western sample, on the other hand, included a wide range of participants from various countries. As the Malaysian sample is narrower in scope and more specific than the Western sample, this disparity poses as a potential restraint in interpreting the results.

Future Research

The young adults stage characterises the shift from childhood to adulthood; it consists of a miscellany of adults that includes those who may still be studying, have begun looking for and securing a career path, or are in the midst of starting their own family. Some may also be on the verge of getting married. As this stage is a transitional period for many young adults, their perceptions and attitudes are constantly changing. Those who have settled down with one or two children of their own may develop a different perspective, eventually changing their attitudes towards corporal punishment. Future research should consider examining the different life stages of young adults as it may emerge to be an extraneous factor affecting young adults’ attitudes towards corporal punishment.

Areas of improvement include translating the survey to suit participants’ primary language. By doing this, the study accommodates to those who has poorer knowledge and understanding of English concepts. Scholars can also consider providing visual tools, such as presenting a video of a parent practicing corporal punishment on his or her child, to encourage greater comprehension among participants.

Future studies in the Malaysian context can also explore the minority races that are scattered around in Malaysia, such as Punjabis and Sikhs, Iban, Kadazan, Peranakan and various other indigenous citizens. Researchers should also consider widening the participants’ demographics and geographical contexts by taking into account rural areas as well as states besides the Klang Valley (e.g., Penang, Kedah, Johor, Pahang). Neighbouring countries (e.g., Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines) could also be included in future samples to increase the generalisability of the results to Asian populations.

There are still many unanswered questions regarding the effects of corporal punishment on self-esteem. Scholars should consider bridging this uncertainty by identifying possible third variables that might account for the relationship between the two variables. Future research can also take advantage of natural experiments with regards to c
orporal punishment (e.g., abrupt alterations in public policies or legal systems).

Implications

Besides adding to the body of knowledge, the findings represent a fundamental groundwork for understanding the corporal punishment phenomenon. It provides a basis for the planning and development of policies and legal mandates regarding corporal punishment.

This study also has implications for practitioners in the education industry. Due to the significant role of teachers in children’s development, there is an increased need for training in child and classroom management. Parenting and training programmes should similarly be modified to better suit the respective cultures so that individuals will be able to differentiate between what is and is not culturally accepted based on the respective norms. In Asian cultures, such as those of the Malaysians, there is normative support for corporal punishment, whereas the opposite is true for Western cultures. This suggests that culture can act as a buffer against the adverse effects of corporal punishment. As such, cultural intelligence is imperative because it allows individuals to better understand why self-esteem of certain cultures are deeply affected, while others are not, despite both receiving the same level of corporal punishment.

Cultures endorsing this disciplinary practice has the implicit meaning of communicating love and concern, but while it may seem constructive at the surface, children who internalise such norms may generalise its appropriateness to the approval of using physical force to deal with problems encountered in other life domains (Lansford & Dodge, 2008). Higher societal violence in cultures where corporal punishment is the norm may ensue. For this reason, parents should proceed with caution whenever corporal punishment is put to use.

The fine line between corporal punishment and child abuse should not be overlooked as there is always the danger that the parent or teacher will lose control. Development of diverse and creative means involving evidence-based behaviour modification (e.g., timeout, response cost) may prove to be more effective in establishing proper conduct among children. Research on these techniques should be subjected to an equal amount of scientific scrutiny so as to improve the understanding of all kinds of parental discipline.

Conclusion

Understanding how young adults perceive corporal punishment is not only essential for understanding the internalising process, but also key in clarifying the related controversial issues in discipline literature. New insights regarding the influence of culture on attitudes towards corporal punishment informs the public that this disciplinary act is not necessarily unfavourable; it can be positive or negative, depending on the culture or the circumstances pertaining to it.

Interestingly, a favourable attitude towards corporal punishment do not guarantee the employment of its behaviour (Flynn, 1998). The opposite is also true: parents who disapprove of this disciplinary practice still incorporate corporal punishment in their households anyway (Bunting, Webb, & Healy, 2010). Hence, corporal punishment is likely to be a never-ending controversy and as with all topics will have its own diverse theories. No matter the approach taken, scholars should always be culturally sensitive when propagating their ideas.

Measures

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