November 13, 2018
Last week the American Academy of Pediatrics released new recommendations for the effective discipline of children and weighed in on a highly debated topic: whether or not you should spank your kids.
A leading pediatric organization in the country, comprising nearly 70,000 physicians, came in with a definitive position: you absolutely should not spank. It is ineffective and harms them, not just physically but also emotionally and developmentally.
Corporal punishment (physical force designed to create hurt or discomfort) like spanking has shown to increase aggression in children, lead to more defiance rather than obedience, and can result in decreased brain development and a lower I.Q. Children who are spanked show increased anti-social behavior, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties that carry through into their adult years.
Like many adults, I was spanked when I was young. Usually just the threat of a spanking was enough to get me to fall in line but when I was bent over a knee. I wasn’t injured. One of my father’s favorite stories of me as a toddler is that once after spanking me, I pulled out my pacifier, looked him in the eye and defiantly stated, “That didn’t hurt.” It still makes him laugh.
By the time I was a school-aged child, my parents had implemented more effective ways to correct and discipline me. I have never spanked my son; it has never even crossed my mind. Spanking has been on the decline and is used far less frequently by parents under 36 years old, but many are still implementing this type of punishment because it’s what they grew up with.
Back in the 1980s, when I was a young girl, spanking and hitting were normal disciplinary actions. It was not considered child abuse or corporal punishment and it was not something hotly debated. But experts have studied and learned the consequences of spanking and are now advising better ways to discipline children. Physical discipline like spanking does not work but communication, understanding, positive reinforcement, consistency, rules and timeouts do. Notice I did not include yelling in that list. Because yelling is not effective, either.
Every parent has yelled at their child. It is human nature to vocalize anger and frustration and when you are a parent, patience can frequently wear thin. But we parents need to summon all the patience we can because yelling is not good for our children. According to a 2014 study published in The Journal of Child Development, yelling at kids can lower their self-esteem and increase their anxiety, stress, and behavioral problems. Through my trial and error as a first-time parent, I have yelled at my toddler. I have yelled because I’ve lost my patience, making the situation worse because it further upsets my son, which results in increased time spent calming him down so he is able to process the lesson I am trying to teach him. Plus, there’s the guilt. I feel like a terrible mother when I yell at my son.
Before I get a ton of comments about how this is the problem with kids today and I am raising my son to be a snowflake, let me ask this. If you saw a father take his belt off to beat his child or a mother open-handedly slap her kid, would you be alarmed and concerned? Would you be appalled? Because there was a time when those actions were considered normal disciplinary actions. Today, we know it is child abuse. And the next time your child acts out and does not listen, try counting to five, taking a breath and speaking in calm, measured tones. You may find, like I have, that keeping my cool and not raising my voice is far more effective when disciplining a child.
Don’t take my word for it. Here is what the experts recommend for effectively disciplining children.
The first step to an effective disciplinary strategy is a “positive, supportive, loving relationship” between the parent and child, according to the recommendations from the AAP. Kids need to feel safe and secure, otherwise little else matters. The relationship between parents and child should be built on love and respect, not the threat of violence or verbal assault. Whether your child is a toddler or a teenager, it is so important that your kids know that you love and respect them. It will develop and reinforce their love and respect for you, making them more receptive and open to guidance and discipline in a positive way, not by force. Here is what the AAP recommends to practically achieve this:
• Maintain a positive emotional tone in the home through play and parental warmth and affection for the child.
• Provide consistency in the form of regular times and patterns for daily activities and interactions to reduce resistance, convey respect for the child, and make negative experiences less stressful.
• Respond consistently to similar behavioral situations to promote more harmonious parent-child relationships and more positive child outcomes.
Positive reinforcement benefits humans of any age. It is the addition of a reward following a desired behavior. That does not mean you should give your child a lollipop (or any food for that matter!) every time they do something that they are supposed to; rather, notice and compliment the behavior, making sure your child knows that you are proud. If you want to decrease the frequency of bad behavior, you need to have a strategy for increasing the good. The AAP’s practical guidance for positive reinforcement includes:
• Provide attention to the child to increase positive behavior (conversely ignoring, removing, or withholding parent attention to decrease the frequency or intensity of undesirable behaviors).
• For older children, attention includes being aware of and interested in their school and other activities.
• Be flexible, particularly with older children and adolescents, through listening and negotiation to reduce fewer episodes of child noncompliance with parental expectations. Involving the child in decision-making has been associated with long-term enhancement in moral judgment.
There are going to be many times over a child’s life when he will need to be disciplined. One of the most important points of discipline is teaching your child what your expectations are, and having clear and consistent rules. The AAP says, “the most critical part of discipline involves helping children learn behaviors that meet parental expectations, are effective in promoting positive social relationships, and help them develop a sense of self-discipline that leads to positive self-esteem.” Time-outs are a highly effective way of disciplining young children. Taking away privileges, like a toy for a young child or a cellphone for a teenager, also works well. Here’s what the AAP recommends:
• Provide clarity on the part of the parent and child about what the problem behavior is and what consequence the child can expect when this behavior occurs.
• Provide a strong and immediate initial consequence when the targeted behavior first occurs.
• Consistently provide an appropriate consequence (like a time-out) each time a targeted problematic behavior occurs.
• Deliver instruction and correction calmly and with empathy.
• Provide a reason for a consequence for a specific behavior, which helps children beyond toddler age to learn the appropriate behavior and improves their overall compliance with requests from adults.
Kids watch and absorb everything we do and say. It is so important to be a good role model for your child as they learn right from wrong, appropriate and inappropriate behaviors because they will mimic you throughout their childhood and life. The AAP offers a few ways to encourage this:
• Provide regular positive attention, sometimes called special time (opportunities to communicate positively are important for children of all ages).
• Listen carefully to children and helping them learn to use words to express their feelings.
• Provide children with opportunities to make choices whenever appropriate options exist and then helping them learn to evaluate the potential consequences of their choice.
• Model orderly, predictable behavior, respectful communication, and collaborative conflict resolution strategies.
Like many things affecting my parenting philosophy and decisions, I listen to the experts. If the AAP says spanking does not work, I trust them. If the experts say that yelling is ineffective, I use that advice to guide my disciplinary choices. We have the right to decide what works best with our children and for our families, but I encourage parents to consider these recommendations. Don’t spank. Try not to yell. Set clear rules and consistent consequences. Above all else, love your children.