From placenta to play centre

Does smacking leave a mark on children?

John Duns Scotus is considered one of the most important Western philosophers of the High Middle Age. He is also, believe it or not, the origin of one of the modern world’s most peculiar forms of child discipline.

Scotus was clearly a bit of a clever clogs. He peppered the 13th century Britain with such impenetrable concepts as ‘univocity’, ‘haeccity’, and ‘illuminationism’. (Scrabble players take note!). One of his lasting achievements is in the area of ‘Natural Theology’, where he made significant attempts to explain the existence of God through reason, rather than relying on faith alone.

Scotus shuffled off this mortal coil in 1308, but he remained a powerful intellectual figure for the next couple of hundred years.

However, the 16th century was a time of great change both in the church (being the period of the ‘reformation’) and the general populace (‘humanism’ was starting to emerge), and the rather complex ideas put forward by Scotus started to be questioned by the new society.

But the followers of Scotus were devoted to the original teachings, and were fervently opposed to any intellectual progression. In fact, so impressive was their stubbornness that the collective term for their movement – ‘Dunsmen’ or ‘Dunces’ – became the rather onomatopoeic term for a person who was incapable of learning.

The term and its newfound meaning gained wider recognition a few decades later when John Ford made mention of a ‘dunce table’ in his play 1624 play The Sun’s Darling, which was a classroom table provided for duller or poorer students.

The first mention of a ‘dunce’s cap’ came in the The Old Curiosity Shop, published by Charles Dickens in 1840. He writes:

‘Displayed on hooks upon the wall in all their terrors, were the cane and ruler; and near them, on a small shelf of its own, the dunce’s cap, made of old newspapers and decorated with glaring wafers of the largest size.

Clearly this was something to be feared.

Indeed, the dunce’s cap – typically conical in shape and marked with a capital D – was used as a means of disciplining schoolchildren in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Misbehaving children would be sent to a corner of the classroom, told to pop on the cap, and stand there in the hope that public humiliation would pull them back into line.

While the dunce’s cap was most commonly used in the Anglophone world, attachable donkey’s ears was the preferred shaming method used in many European classrooms. (Truly!).

The grand irony that one of the world’s brightest minds would come to be an eponym for a dimwit is I’m sure, not beyond the readers of this Column. But this is just one of many stories from the (sometimes) weird and (often) wacky history of childhood discipline.

Source unknown


While the dunce’s cap has been thankfully retired from the majority of school systems, there is one child discipline method that has stood the test of time. I refer, of course, to the smack (‘spank’, for North American readers).

Smacking is one of those parenting issues that split the world into two. In which camp are you rooted?

The best way to work this out is through a thought experiment. Imagine you’re at a supermarket and you spot a child misbehaving; for the purpose of the experiment, let’s say that the child is pulling items of the shelf and leaving them on the floor – being a deliberate nuisance. You disapprove of the child’s behaviour, but continue your shopping. Before you get too far, you spot the child’s clearly disapproving parent(s) moving towards the child. You turn around just in time to see the parent(s) smack the child on the bottom.

How do you feel?

The two sides of the debate

This, of course, is not much of a thought experiment, given that we’ve all no doubt encountered a similar situation before.

On one side of the debate are people who feel that the child was deliberately misbehaving, and that physical punishment is a method of registering your own disapproval with the child, and make him/her less likely to do this in the future.

On the other side, there are people who feel that smacking is an unnecessarily harsh method of punishment that can have long-term detrimental effects on the child, and is no more effective in extinguishing poor behaviour than non-physical forms of punishment.

One particular aspect of the latter argument that intrigued me was the view that smacking can have long-term negative effects on the (emotional) health of a child.

No parent wants to harm affect their child’s future, and I’d imagine that if this is found to be true, it would be one nail in the coffin for the proponents of smacking as a form of child discipline.

Angry Boy, Frogner Park (Oslo, Norway)

Smacking: The science

One of the largest studies in this area was published by Afifi and colleagues in August of 2012.

Participants in this study were part of a larger survey of adults undertaken in 2004 and 2005 in the US. The adults were at least 20 years of age at the time of the survey, and the participant sample was broadly representative of the greater US population in terms of age and levels of social disadvantage.

The ‘survey’ consisted of a long interview with a trained investigator. Among the many questions asked of the participants, was an item concerning physical punishment as a child. More specifically, the participants were asked: ‘As a child how often were you ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house?’.

Adults answered according to a five-point scale (‘never’, ‘almost never’, ‘sometimes’, ‘fairly often’, or ‘very often’). Those who reported ‘sometimes’, ‘fairly often’ or ‘often’ to this event were considered as having experienced physical punishment as a child.

The participants also underwent a full diagnostic interview, which was able to determine whether the adults had ever experienced, or were currently experiencing, a psychiatric illness. The researchers were particularly interested in ‘Axis 1’ (clinical disorders, such as major depression, anxiety disorders and psychotic disorders) and ‘Axis 2’ (personality disorders) conditions.

The main analysis sought to determine whether the adults who had experienced physical punishment as a child were at greater risk of psychiatric illness.

(Participants who reported having experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse as a child were excluded from the analyses for this study. Of course, there is a well-established causal relationship between childhood abuse and later psychiatric illness).

The findings

A complete set of data were obtained on around 20,000 adults (which, I must say, is an extremely impressive participants sample size). Just over 5% of these participants (1,258 adults) had experienced physical punishment as a child, with around 19,349 adults reporting never having experienced physical punishment.

First, a few interesting sociodemographic findings. The researchers found that physical punishment was more common among:
• Males (compared with female)
• African Americans (compared with Caucasian)
• Adults with higher income bands and greater educational levels (compared with people with lower income and education).

The association analyses also revealed interesting findings. Participants who experienced physical punishment as a child were more likely to have either an Axis 1 or Axis 2 psychiatric disorder. These findings remained, even after taking into account a wide range of social and family history variables.

The researchers also calculated what is called a ‘population attributable fraction’ for both Axis 1 (2-5%) and Axis II (4-7%) disorders.

In plain terms, these statistics mean that if physical punishment was suddenly outlawed (and everybody obeyed this law), the amount of people experiencing an Axis 1 clinical disorder would fall by 2-5%, and the amount of people experiencing an Axis 2 personality disorder would drop by 4-7%.

The limitations

The major limitation of this study is the measure of childhood physical punishment. The researchers asked adults to recall experiences from their childhood, which brings in to play the reliability of human memory.

Can you remember whether you experienced physical punishment ‘never’, ‘almost never’, ‘sometimes’, ‘fairly often’, or ‘very often’?

My bet is that you’ll struggle.

(My own memory recalls my teenage years, where I found having to do the washing up equivalent to cruel and unusual punishment).

The conclusion

Afifi and colleagues found that if a person experiences physical punishment as a child, they are at a slightly increased risk of psychiatric disorder as an adult. However, please keep in mind two things:
(1) This is an association only. The researchers have not proven that physical punishment causes psychiatric disorder.
(2) The measure of childhood punishment relied on the human memory, which is a notoriously inaccurate tool.


Childhood discipline differs from family to family (and, in almost all cases, within the same family!).

Should we care what goes on in other people’s families? The answer is ‘no’ to most circumstances, unless it breaches the law. Currently, physical punishment is legal in Australia, provided the action is ‘reasonable’. Similar laws are in place across the Anglophone world, except for New Zealand, which banned corporal punishment in the home in 2007.

In 50 years’ time, will the majority of society view physical punishment of children the same negative way as we do dunce’s caps?

From what I can see, science is yet to provide a definitive answer to this question.

But I bet you have an opinion.

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