“To smack or not to smack?” is still the question at the forefront of many parents’ minds. Gone are the days, it seems, when a simple clip over the ears was considered an appropriate way of restoring order.
Corporal punishment has largely been outlawed in educational settings and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians called for such bans to extend to parents. That being the case, what is today’s parent supposed to do to direct children towards acceptable behaviour? What is the evidence for and against corporal punishment as the “treatment of choice?”
In the 1970s, Sweden became the first country in the world to prohibit corporal punishment of children. Some 35 years later, Swedish experts point to a review of 150 international studies showing the consequences of corporal punishment as being detrimental to children’s development.
While 194 countries officially view spanking as wrong, only 43 countries (including New Zealand) have made hitting children illegal. Nations such as Brazil, San Marino and Estonia are among the most recent to adopt bans.
However, while evidence is mounting against the use of corporal punishment, progress towards implementation of a child’s right to develop in an environment free from violence (as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a signatory) is slow.
For many parents, the fact that they were smacked as children (hit, caned, belted or otherwise physically punished) provides no deterrent. For some this may even constitute an incentive to continue the practice, perhaps due to the tendency to overlook or minimise its impact. Many parents interpret their own childhood experience of physical punishment positively, thereby lending support to arguments based on parental rights and authority.
Perhaps the most seductive aspect of the traditional method is that it has an instantaneous effect of discouraging undesirable behaviour. Not only that, but it can have a cathartic effect on the frustrated, stressed parent.
However, change over the longer term is entirely another matter. Research does not support the efficacy of physical punishment in achieving lasting behavioural change.
Harsh punishment has been found to negatively affect children’s emotional and language development, academic progress and parental attachment. Disruptive, anti-social behaviour may result.
Reviews considering long-term outcomes typically identify mental health issues such as internalising problems (like depression), or externalising problems (like aggression), and increased vulnerability to substance and alcohol abuse in adolescence and adulthood.
There are also concerns about cognitive impacts due to the potential stress and trauma involved.
The jury is still out on whether milder, controlled and less hostile physical punishment is harmful to the same extent. What is clear, however, is that research does not support the notion that corporal punishment is better than any other non-physical means of discipline.
What does punishment teach children?
There are problematic messages surrounding corporal punishment. Critics argue that children learn not that their behaviour is unacceptable and why, rather they learn only that they should avoid doing something while an adult is present in order to avoid the punishment. Beyond that, they learn that violence is the way to solve problems.
It is worth posing the question as to what children do not learn as a consequence. What is omitted in the application of this strategy is the opportunity to develop moral reasoning and self-control. Given our concern about levels of violence both within our communities and in cyberspace, this would seem a worthy aspiration.
So how do you then make your children behave?
Alternative techniques in current use to discourage misbehaviour include:
withdrawal of privileges
exclusion (time out) or quiet time
setting and enforcing boundaries
saying “no” firmly but avoiding hostility.
The key to achieving desirable behaviour over the longer term is the quality of our relationships. Research and practice confirm that positive outcomes can be enhanced by:
spending focused time together in activities of the child’s choosing, while demonstrating patience, support and warmth
educating ourselves about appropriate expectations (in line with the child’s level of development). For example, aggression in toddlers is normal (peaking at 24-42 months). A child’s ability to concentrate when following adult-directed activities can be estimated at 3 minutes per year of age (4 years x 3 = 12 minutes)
being warm, affectionate, consistent and encouraging with children
minimising the need for discipline with preventive strategies. Provide a high-interest novel toy on occasions where coping with the environment will be challenging (such as aeroplane travel) or plan brief excursions to retail environments when the child is neither fatigued nor irritable, involving the child in the experience. This could be finding and placing suitable objects in the shopping trolley. If the children feel involved they are less likely to lose interest and act out
providing appropriate, active supervision and involvement in activities (avoiding distractions of technology such as mobile phones so the parent is completely available)
explaining why certain behaviours are inappropriate, including their impact on others
teaching empathy by supporting children in identifying emotions and responding sensitively
offering choices – for example, letting the child choose what colour hat they would like to wear (but not presenting “not wearing a hat” as an option)
modelling appropriate behaviours and responses, providing support and guidance (alternative strategies) when frustration occurs
redirecting the young child to other activities when tensions arise
developing rules appropriate to children’s developmental level.
Raising children can be a stressful and emotionally demanding experience. Adopting approaches that require more concentrated effort, time, planning and consistency is a challenge, but the return is substantial.
This allows us to teach children internalised self-regulation, ethical choices and consideration for others, and ultimately, to interrupt the generational cycle of violence in child discipline.