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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Google Forms. Google Forms is a web-based tool that is suited for surveys as it ensures the anonymity and confidentiality of the respondents. This tool allows the researcher to virtually connect with individuals across geographical boundaries, facilitating the collection of data.
Attitude toward Spanking (ATS) Questionnaire (Holden, Coleman, & Schmidt, 1995). This questionnaire is a 7-point Likert scale, consisting of 10 items, which measures non-parent’s attitudes towards spanking a child. On this scale, 1 indicates Strongly Disagree, 2 indicates Moderately Disagree, 3 indicates Slightly Disagree, 4 indicates Neither Agree nor Disagree, 5 indicates Slightly Agree, 6 indicates Moderately Agree, and 7 indicates Strongly Agree. Examples of items are “Spanking a child is a normal part of parenting” and “When all is said and done, spanking is harmful for a child”. Items 3, 8, and 10 are reverse-scored. The questionnaire is scored by summing up the scores. A higher number is indicative of a more positive attitude towards spanking. This measure takes approximately 5 minutes to be completed. Cronbach alpha for this scale in past research ranged from .89 to .91 for five independent samples of parents. It has also been shown to have a strong test-retest reliability of .76. Validity was assessed by correlating total scores with daily reports of whether subjects spanked (r = .54), as well as their weekly rates of spanking (r = .73; see Holden et al., 1995). Within the current sample, the reliability was high, with Cronbach alpha of .90.
Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965). The Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale is a 10-item 4-point scale that is Likert-type. This questionnaire consists of a list of statements regarding general feelings of one’s self. On this scale, SA indicates Strongly Agree, A indicates Agree, D indicates Disagree, and SD indicates Strongly Disagree. Examples of items are “At times, I think I am no good at all” and “I certainly feel useless at times”. To score the scale, SA = 3, A = 2, D = 1, SD = 0. Items 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9 are reverse-scored. The sum of the 10 items is calculated and a higher score is indicative of higher self-esteem. This measure takes approximately 5 minutes to be completed. Past research indicated that this scale has an internal consistency that ranges between .77 to .88, and a criterion validity of .55 (Rosenberg, 1965). The reliability of the scale within the current sample is also high, with Cronbach alpha of .85.
Ethical approval from the Research Ethics Committee of Sunway University’s Department of Psychology, which adheres to the British Psychological Society (BPS) Code of Ethics, was acquired in order to administer the research. With convenience sampling and snowball sampling techniques, questionnaires were distributed to obtain data. The researcher utilised social media (e.g., WhatsApp and Facebook) to reach out to friends. From there, the researcher’s friends shared the post to their own group of friends, and so on. The surveys were distributed via Google Forms. The Before proceeding with the questionnaires, participants were presented with the demographics form (see Appendix G). The Attitude toward Spanking (ATS) Questionnaire (see Appendix B) was then introduced, followed by the Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale (see Appendix D).
Hard copy survey forms were also distributed in Sunway University and Monash University campuses, as well as among the young adults who came into close contact with the researcher. Similar to the procedure whereby Google Forms were used, participants were presented with the PIS form, followed by the demographics form and questionnaires.
Other than participants’ age, gender, culture, race and nationality, no other attempts to identify participants’ personal information were made. The survey took approximately 10 minutes to be completed. Upon completion, participants were debriefed (see Appendix H and Appendix I) and thanked for their kind cooperation in the study. No compensations were included in this research.
For the Western sample, participants who are of Europe, Americas (North and South America) and Australasia (Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, as well as neighbouring islands in the Pacific Ocean) descents, both residing and not residing in Malaysia, were recruited. Additionally, the researcher sought out friends who were studying or living in Western countries to help facilitate data collection by broadcasting the survey link t
o their own social networks (e.g., classmates and colleagues).
For the past few decades, parents of various cultures have been using a common rearing method as a means of keeping their children “in line”. This disciplinary measure is no other than corporal punishment, also commonly known as physical punishment or spanking. Corporal punishment is a disciplinary practice that is central to moral development as it instils moral values and standards that help promote children’s self-controlled behaviour (Brody & Shaffer, 1982). This is why corporal punishment has been used integrally by most parents, not only in Malaysia, but also in Western countries like Canada, where it is seen to be a common and accepted means of eliciting behavioural compliance from children (Durrant & Ensom, 2012). Those who do use corporal punishment, do so frequently. Recent studies revealed that 45-95% of American families practice corporal punishment in their homes (Straus & Donnelly, 2001; Zolotor, Robinson, Runyan, Barr, & Murphy, 2011), while 29-77% of children began experiencing corporal punishment from below 2 years of age (Socolar, Savage, & Evans, 2007). Approximately 83% of children in South Asia experience corporal punishment at home (Ratcliffe, 2017). In Malaysia, research revealed that 63% of students recalled being corporally punished when they were a child (Kumaraswamy & Othman, 2011). Among the 63%, 5% claimed to have faced the most severe form of corporal punishment to the point of becoming abused. Despite its prevalence, nations that adopt laws and policies against corporal punishment (e.g., Germany, Sweden, Norway, Italy and Denmark) have also been increasing (Gershoff, 2002). Despite being the focus of psychological research for decades, corporal punishment remains to be a controversial issue that has instigated numerous debates around the globe.
Richardson (2012) defined corporal punishment as the physical force used by a parent with the aim of causing pain, but not injury, to modify or control the child’s behaviour. This excludes behaviours such as shaking, pulling ears, twisting arms, shoving, kicking, beating, punching, stabbing and choking (Maldonado, 2004). Spanking was also defined by Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor (2016) as the act of hitting a child on their backsides or extremities with the use of an open hand. By associating the pain or unpleasant feeling with the misbehaviour, children will then learn to stop acting up due to the fear of experiencing pain in the future. Corporal punishment, physical punishment, as well as spanking are terms that have been used interchangeably in research (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016), but for the ease of participants’ understanding, spanking will be the term employed in the questionnaires.
Attitudes towards Corporal Punishment
Public policies against corporal punishment in certain countries, such as Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Israel and Croatia, have gradually begun to alter the public’s positive attitudes (Gershoff, 2002). Paediatric nurses and other paediatric practitioners in America are against its use (Knox, 2010). This notion also holds true among the Taiwanese nurses (Feng & Levine, 2005). Nonetheless, despite these policies and the widely-known conception that corporal punishment is a prominent risk factor for various externalising and internalising behaviours, its approval continues to persist in various parts of the world (e.g., Taylor, Hamvas, Rice, Newman, & DeJong, 2011; Yang, 2008).
Tirosh, Shechter, Cohen and Jaffe (2003) examined Israeli physicians’ attitudes towards corporal punishment. Although a minority of family and senior practitioners were less tolerant, they found that an approximate of 58% approved the practice of corporal punishment. Parents, teachers and often children themselves, perceive corporal punishment as a beneficial tool that not only corrects bad behaviour, but also improves academic performance (Morrow & Singh, 2014; Nguyen & Tran, 2013; Parkes & Heslop, 2011). Although there are teachers who acknowledge the negative effects of this practice, majority believe that the benefits outweigh its shortcomings (Mamatey, 2010). Primary caregivers in most countries do not emphasise the need for corporal punishment in their households, but regardless, large proportions of children are still subjected to physical punishment everyday (Cappa & Khan, 2011).
The idea that corporal punishment is appropriate and that parents have the right to practice it in order to discipline their child is controversial, because rather than seeing improvements in learning and behaving, children who are corporally punished feel sad, scared and confused; some are even exposed to higher chances of becoming violent in the future (Morrow & Singh, 2014; Rojas, 2011). Through observation, modelling and imitation, children come to learn that violence is an acceptable means of gaining compliance from others. This is consistent with the social learning theory (Bandura, 1977), which suggests that people learn the nuances of violence through direct experience or observation of others (Baron & Branscombe, 2014). The child’s parents and teachers are the few key people that most children look up to; they constitute the child’s reference group – people whom the child identifies with and takes after (Baron & Branscombe, 2014). As these people are the ones who frequently practice corporal punishment, children are continuously exposed to the normalisation of violence. Such experiences may even lead children to practice the extreme form of this act in later life by physically assaulting their spouses or children (Gershoff, 2002; Knox, 2010; Straus & Yodanis, 1996).
Cultural Differences in Attitudes towards Corporal Punishment
Until somewhat recently, research has failed to address the significance of culture in the relationship between corporal punishment and children’s adjustment, but because culture is a type of filter that can alleviate or aggravate the effects of corporal punishment on a child’s behaviour (Lansford, 2010), it is a factor that should not be overlooked. Culture has frequently been linked with words like race, ethnicity, or nationality; but Matsumoto and Juang (2013) explicitly defines culture as the unique meaning and information system, commonly shared by a group of people and communicated from one generation to the next, which allows them to meet basic needs for survival, attain happiness and overall well-being, as well as to derive meaning from life. Western culture, in particular, can be referred to the Europeans (Jenkins, 1991). Jariya (2012) asserts that the term Western culture may also imply Western European cultural influences of musical, artistic, ethic, oral and folkloric traditions, whose themes include those of Romanticism. This concept is associated with countries whose history is heavily marked by settlement or immigration of the Western Europeans, including Americas (North and South America) and Australasia (Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and neighbouring islands in the Pacific Ocean).
Several studies from various parts of the world have documented young adults’ attitude and acceptance of corporal punishment. Kittitian youths, on average, tend to agree with the cultural belief that corporal punishment (e.g. beating) is a good and proper means of raising children (Rohner, Kean, & Cournoyer, 1991). Similar results were also found among children in Ghana (Twum-Danso Imoh, 2013). Research on other samples, such as the Israeli Arab children, suggests that corporal punishment is seen as a norm and an integral aspect of the parent-child relationship (Guttmann, Lazar, & Makhoul, 2009). These outcomes were inconsistent with those of the Pakistani youths, who showed unfavourable attitudes towards corporal punishment (Lodhi & Siddiqui, 2014).
A survey on attitudes towards corporal punishment in Pennsylvanian schools (Reardon &a
mp; Reynolds, 1973) showed that there was an agreement of approximately 70% to 80% who were in support of the use of corporal punishment; reflecting the community’s belief that corporal punishment is a useful disciplinary method. It is worth noting, however, that the prevalence of corporal punishment in the United States is gradually declining (Gershoff, Purtell, & Holas, 2015; Richardson, 2012). Richardson (2012) expanded the findings of research on American populations by comparing the attitudes of African Americans and White Americans. He revealed that African Americans were not only corporally punished significantly more in their childhood than White Americans, but they may also be more inclined to favour corporal punishment compared to White Americans (Taylor, Hamvas, & Paris, 2011).
Heilmann, Kelly and Watt (2015) documents that Western and European individuals generally view corporal punishment in an unfavourable light. Most Western countries (e.g., United Kingdom, United States, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Austria) were observed to exhibit negative attitudes towards physical punishment (Heilmann et al., 2015). Recent research on attitudes towards corporal punishment in Australia and United Kingdom similarly revealed children to testify feeling hurt, both emotionally and physically, as a result of being corporally punished (Hyder & Willow, 1998; Saunders, 2013); they contend that “smacking” is wrong and hurtful (Hyder & Willow, 1998). New Zealanders or Kiwis from the 18-to-29-year-old age group were also found to be less agreeable towards the legality of physical punishment (Carswell, 2001). While the practice of corporal punishment is claimed by the Western educationists to be barbaric and incompatible with contemporary standards of humanitarian ethics, its use in Asian countries is still widely accepted today (Mbikyo, 2012).
From a Malaysian perspective, attitudes of medical students (between 24 and 26 years old) were examined (Kumaraswamy & Othman, 2011). On average, participants were fairly favourable of corporal punishment. In traditional Malay families, fathers are the key figure who applies the authoritarian parenting style, and would therefore be the one inflicting punishment whenever there are misconducts in the house. As the child grows older, their respect towards the father increases and they would eventually view corporal punishment as an acceptable method of teaching the child a lesson.
In the Indian tradition, role relationships of parents and children are well-defined (Segal, 1999). Parents often dictate all areas of the child’s life, while the child is expected to be obedient and bring honour to the family’s name. Even long after they marry or leave the parental home, children in India tend to remain submissive. Nonetheless, most Indian children find corporal punishment to be unacceptable (Segal, 1999).
Corporal punishment is also a common practice among Chinese parents. They explicitly show their children the consequences of misconduct by using physical means to regulate behaviour. It would not come as a surprise that the use of corporal punishment is frequently associated with child physical maltreatment (Tang, 2006). Nonetheless, corporal punishment remains to be one of the primary approaches in parental discipline (Guo, 2013) as it is firmly rooted in Chinese beliefs of family accountability (Fung & Lau, 2009). Many parents in Hong Kong view corporal punishment as a parental right and an effective means of educating children, believing that this practice will ultimately be able to inculcate a sense of filial piety in children (Lau, Liu, Cheung, Yu, & Wong, 1999). Qiao and Chan (2005) also documents that countless of Chinese individuals hold the attitude that “the rod shapes an obedient child” or that “beating is caring”.
Effects of Corporal Punishment on Self-Esteem
Corporal punishment has shown to be effective in preventing children’s maladaptive behaviour in the short-term, but the likelihood of long-term negative effects on children’s mental health is of concern to many psychological communities. Furthermore, corporal punishment has damaging effects on the health and development of a child. These include poorer self-esteem, increased physical abuse victimisation, delinquency, aggression and antisocial behaviour. Spanking during childhood is similarly associated with poorer mental health, abuse of loved ones, aggression and antisocial behaviour in later adulthood (Zolotor et al., 2011).
Although parents’ use of corporal punishment improves children’s immediate compliance (Gershoff, 2002), it may imply additional messages beyond the intended meaning, which could then impinge on the child’s internalising behaviours. Individuals who experience high levels of corporal punishment were shown to have more depressive symptoms, negative parental relationships, identity problems, and perceived non-support (Leary, Kelley, Morrow, & Mikulka, 2008) – all of which have significant influences on self-esteem.
Research conducted several decades ago have indicated strong links between harsh physical punishment and low self-esteem (Loeb, Horst, & Horton, 1980), as well as lower general well-being (Bachar, Canetti, Bonne, DeNour, & Shalev, 1997). Such studies have mostly been conducted in the United States (Amato & Fowler, 2002; Aucoin, Frick, & Bodin, 2006; Mulvaney & Mebert, 2010), and have consistently revealed a negative relationship between corporal punishment and children’s self-esteem. A peek into Asian countries like Vietnam (Ogando Portela & Pells, 2015) and Hong Kong (Chan, Brownridge, Yan, Fong, & Tiwari, 2011) also indicated similar results. Nevertheless, despite having studies that show links between corporal punishment and low self-esteem, existing research also shows a null relationship between the two variables (Joubert, 1991; Kassing, Pearce, Infante, & Pyles, 1999).
According to social learning theorists, self-esteem is described as a stable sense of self-worth or personal worthiness (Rosenberg, 1965). It appears that corporal punishment has direct effects on an individual’s self-esteem, but scholars have yet to reach a full consensus about the nature of this relationship. Modern-day literature in this area is also relatively scarce compared to the copiousness of evidence-based research regarding the influence of corporal punishment on externalising behaviours (e.g., Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016; Paolucci & Violato, 2004).
Self-event connections (i.e. narrative statements that associates an event to an enduring aspect of oneself) have the ability to integrate specific memories into an individual’s life story, which in itself has significant implications on one’s well-being (Merrill, Waters, & Fivush, 2016). As such, corporal punishment in childhood may well result in a lasting effect on self-esteem in adulthood.
The Present Study
The present study focuses on the attitudes of young adults as previous research conducted on this population were largely comprised of undergraduates from specific courses, which could have brought certain biasness to the results (e.g., Kumaraswamy & Othman, 2011; Leary et al., 2008). Besides students, working young adults were included in this sample, allowing for the generalisability of the findings. As the measures used in this research are self-reports (i.e. Attitudes toward Spanking Questionnaire and Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale), young adults are sampled rather than children. This is because young adults are generally more consistent when it comes to self-reporting behaviour (Sherry, Jefferds, & Grummer-Strawn, 2007). The target age group will thus include the range of 18 to 29 years old, that is, the stage of young adulthood (Arnett, Zukauskiene, & Sugimura, 2014; Delli Carpini, 2000).
The impact of corporal punishment can be moderated by the meani
ng attributed to it, which in itself, may be affected by other factors such as age, race, culture, gender or parenting context (Deater-Deckard & Dodge, 1997). Although corporal punishment has been a hot topic among scholars for the past few decades, emphasis on its cultural influence have yet to be extensively studied. Research has brought up the notion that the meaning of particular parenting behaviours (e.g., corporal punishment) may differ between cultures, and its effect on children could therefore vary (Benjet & Kazdin, 2003). Current research on cross-cultural comparisons have consistently focused on the different ethnicities in America (e.g., Deater-Deckard, Dodge, & Sorbring, 2005; Jambunathan, Burts, & Pierce, 2000; Richardson, 2012), paying less attention to those in Asian countries. This research therefore aims to investigate the cultural differences in young adults’ attitudes towards corporal punishment. By cross-culturally comparing the Westerners and Malaysians, we will be able to clarify whether young adults’ attitudes towards corporal punishment is culturally determined. As Malaysia is a multiracial country with diverse ethnicities, racial differences in attitudes towards corporal punishment will also be tapped into.
Research suggests that physical discipline in childhood may have important consequences, not only on their family environment, but also on an individual’s psychological well-being during young adulthood (Leary et al., 2008). Little is known about the outcomes associated with a history of corporal punishment in childhood, especially within Asian countries. Scholars suggest that even mild corporal punishment could bring about symptoms of emotional distress that reflect problems in self-esteem (Aucoin et al., 2006). As reflection of childhood experiences regarding corporal punishment may prove to be particularly important (Bartholdson, 2001), and because childhood disadvantage has been consistently linked to adult physical mortality and morbidity (Evans, 2016), this research intends to explore whether different levels of corporal punishment in childhood would affect young adults’ self-esteem. The three hypotheses are outlined as follows:
H1: There will be cultural differences between Malaysians and Westerners in their attitudes towards corporal punishment (i.e. spanking).
H2: There will be racial differences among Malay, Chinese, and Indian races in their attitudes towards corporal punishment (i.e. spanking).
H3: Those who recalled experiencing frequent corporal punishment (i.e. spanking) in their childhood will have reduced levels of self-esteem.
A non-experimental survey design was used to study the cultural differences in attitudes towards corporal punishment. Corporal punishment is operationally defined as spanking in this research. For the first hypothesis (H1), the independent variable (IV) is the three main races in Malaysia, that is, Malay, Chinese and Indian, while the dependent variable (DV) is young adults’ attitudes towards corporal punishment. For the second hypothesis (H2), culture is the IV, with two levels – Malaysians and Westerners; while the DV is young adults’ attitudes towards corporal punishment. For the third hypothesis (H3), the IV is levels of corporal punishment experienced, with three levels – rare, moderate and frequent; while the DV is self-esteem. H3 is measured by dividing the participants into three groups, according to the corporal punishment experienced: (1) rare (one or two incidents per year); (2) frequent (one or more times a month); (3) moderate (between these rare and frequent levels). These levels are extracted from the definitions established by Turner and Finkelhor (1996) in their research. Participants were recruited through convenience sampling and snowball sampling (i.e. non-probability sampling techniques).
The sample of this study comprised of 218 participants from Malaysian and Western cultures. Among the Malaysians, participants from Malay, Chinese and Indian races were identified. The target age group are young adults, that is, from 18 to 29 years old (M = 21.99; SD = 2.43). The Western sample varied considerably in terms of nationality (i.e. American, Australian, British, Canadian, Czech, Danish, Deutsch, Dutch, French, German, Icelandic, Irish, Mexican, Polish, Romanian, Scottish and Swiss). The exclusion criteria are those who are not from the Malaysian or Western cultures as well as those who are of mixed races and mixed cultures. Individuals who have any form of disabilities (mental or physical) were also excluded from the study. Participants’ demographic characteristics are displayed in Table 1 below.
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