I was shocked when I read a recent study in Pediatrics and learned more than 50% of American parents still spank their kids. Even more surprising is that up to 15% of parents report spanking their infants. Despite the fact that many developed countries have laws banning all forms of corporal punishment, spanking is still a common method of disciplining children in the United States.
In this post, my colleagues Kathleen Berchelmann discusses reasons why she stopped spanking her kids.
Many parents believe that spanking is an easy and quick method to get children to behave. While spanking often does lead to an immediate change in behavior, in the long term it leads to increased behavior problems. This study supported the findings of previous studies and showed that children who are spanked have increased aggression and decreased language skills at ages 5 and 9. This means that children who are spanked are more likely to display aggressive behaviors such as hitting, acting out, or disregard for rules. These children were also found to have lower scores on verbal and language testing. The evidence is clear physical discipline is unhelpful in promoting desirable behavior, and is associated with worse outcomes for children.
Many parents struggle with appropriate discipline techniques and parents who were spanked themselves as children may have trouble developing alternative strategies.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents to adopt a discipline style that promotes a positive, loving relationship between the parent and child, involves positive reinforcement strategies to increase desired behavior, and consequences for negative behavior.
1) How to promote a positive relationship: This is an easy one. Spend time with your children and take notice of the things that interest them. This may be playing trucks or having a tea party with your child. Encourage your child to be involved with family time and allow them to help with small chores around the house. Young children are often very interested in being “helpers.” Try to have a schedule or routine to their day. Children thrive in more structured environment and when they know what to expect during the day. This can be as simple as a daily bedtime/wake up routine that your child can count on most days. Give your child choices when possible. Allow them to choose cereal or toast for breakfast, or choose part of their outfit. Allowing your child to make small choices can help them to feel more in control of their day.
2) Reward desirable behaviors: Rather than focusing solely on negative behaviors, remember to praise your child for positive behavior. Children generally want to please their parents and take pride in doing things well. This could include praising your children for picking up their toys, telling them you are proud of them for being patient, or thanking them for playing together quietly. Try to find specific examples rather than using blanket statements such as “you were a good boy/girl today.” It is easier to reinforce positive behaviors when children have a clear understanding of what they did well. Try to catch your kids at positive moments as often as possible. For older kids, you may on occasion use tangible rewards such as an allowance, a fun day out with mom or dad, or other special treats to reward positive behaviors.
3) Reduce and eliminate undesirable behaviors: This is where traditional “discipline” comes into play. You will need to adapt and change your strategies as your children get older. For toddlers it is often most effective to either remove the offending object or remove the toddler for the situation. For example, many young children go through a phase of throwing food on the floor. When this occurs it often is easier to simply remove the plate and calmly tell the child, “Food needs to stay on your plate.” Once your child calms down you can return their food and remind them that food needs to stay on the plate. They will likely test your limits several times. This can also be applied to toys or objects being used inappropriately. For example, if your child is throwing toys you may choose to put away the offending object for a period of time. Young children often have tempter tantrums when they do not get their way. In the home environment it is often best to simply ignore the behavior. Out in public it can be more challenging and you may find that you have to remove your child from the situation. Make sure you do not give in to their demands during a tantrum as this will reinforce the behavior you are trying to eliminate. For older children a time out is often an effective strategy. It is generally recommended to use one minute of time out per year in age. Older children also respond to removal of privileges such as loss of TV time or allowance.
Resources for parents looking for more information:
1) Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay
2) 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 by Thomas Phelan
3) How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish