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Report warns against physical discipline

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Little girl painting a wall

The issue of physical discipline of children has always been a hot topic, but it seems increasingly that expert opinion does not support smacking.

A report from the American Academy of Paediatrics finds that parents should not use corporal punishment (including hitting and spanking), “either in anger or as a punishment for consequence of this behaviour, nor should they use any disciplinary strategy, including verbal abuse, that causes shame or humiliation”. The report’s authors give numerous reasons for their stance.

First, spanking is ineffective in the long-term. The report noted that in a 2016 meta-analysis (a study that gathers together all existing data on an issue), current literature did not support physical punishment as being beneficial in the long term.

This led to the second reason to avoid spanking or smacking: evidence shows that rather than changing things for the better, spanking or other corporal punishment can actually be associated with subsequent aggressive behaviour in a child and make it more likely, not less likely, that children will be defiant or aggressive in the future.

So although smacking may appear to be an instant solution it’s actually modelling a negative behaviour to a child and often makes things worse.
Dr Anthea Rhodes

A smack focuses on undesired behaviours

Dr Anthea Rhodes is a paediatrician at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. She agrees that smacking can lead to other negative consequences.

“We know that children who experience aggressive discipline, like smacking, are more likely to use aggression to tackle their own problems,” Dr Rhodes says.

“So although smacking may appear to be an instant solution it’s actually modelling a negative behaviour to a child and often makes things worse.

“A child who experiences smacking is more likely to hit other children. So at kindergarten, for example, if someone has the toy they want, that child may turn to hitting or smacking to solve their issue.”

That’s not the only problem. The attention that comes with a smack means a lot of focus is given to undesired behaviours, rather than teaching what the preferred behaviour is.

“While it does give a message of ‘don’t do this’ it doesn’t give a message of ‘this is what we’d like you to do instead’,” Dr Rhodes says.

“Children’s brains are hardwired for attention. They crave it whether it is negative or positive. So, a child who gets lots of negative attention will often find themselves doing those negative behaviours more because it gets them more attention, and you end up in a cycle that is going in the wrong direction.”.

The US report supports this statement, noting that young children who were spanked more than twice a month at age three were more aggressive at age five, even when researchers controlled for factors like demographics or other risk factors.

By the time these children turned nine, behaviours worsened, leading researchers to note that the interaction between smacking and misbehaviour continues over time: “Each negative interaction reinforces previous negative interactions as a complex negative spiral.”

Corporal punishment and mental health

Researchers also found that both corporal punishment and verbal abuse can lead to increased risk of mental health disorders and cognition problems:  changes in brain anatomy that have been demonstrated using MRI.

“Those issues are very real. There is definitely an association between punitive disciplinary strategies, whether that is physical or emotional, and longer term harm in some children,” Dr Rhodes says.

It all adds up to the importance of parents finding better solutions.

Given that children’s brains crave attention, Dr Rhodes says it pays for parents to give attention to the things they want to see more of.

“As much as possible, we try to encourage parents to think actively about catching those little moments throughout the day when the kids are being good and acknowledging those,” she says.

The result of “filling the air” with attention about the positives usually leads to the negative behaviours dropping off, although Dr Rhodes acknowledges that they won’t disappear completely. Discipline is still a part of parenting.

“There are still situations where boundaries have to be drawn, but it’s about how you do that without using physical discipline,” she says.

Calm interventions

Short or long term, Dr Rhodes says “calm interventions” work best. 

Regardless of how you define a strategy like time out, it contains some principles Dr Rhodes says that have been shown to work well.

“It’s about taking away attention and the heat of the moment when something isn’t going well. You all regroup and everyone gains control of his or her own behaviour and of what is going on. Then you all come back into a more positive interaction,” she says.

Whatever consequence a parent chooses, it should be both age and developmentally appropriate.

“A two-year-old won’t be able to sit quietly for half an hour in a café while you have a coffee. They aren’t able to do that,” Dr Rhodes says.

“It’s about understanding what is reasonable and normal for a child; having some clear and consistent boundaries; and when they cross that boundary having a calm intervention that allows them to calm down [without it involving] physical discipline and lots of negative energy and attention. Then it’s back on with the day, and lots of praise and reward on the positives,” she says.

Although the juggle of parenting can be difficult, and parents can often feel stretched or stressed in the moment Dr Rhodes says it's important to ‘stay out of the jungle’ yourself if your child isn’t behaving well.

"Little children aren’t always good at managing their emotions or being on their best behaviour. They’re not born ‘civilised’ and with self-control; they have to learn this,” Dr Rhodes says.

“As parents, it’s important to keep calm and model good behaviour - if you find yourself entering a state where you are suddenly in the jungle with them, it's hard to get a positive outcome from that.”

Instead of physical discipline parents should:

  • Catch children being good and praise them in the moment.
  • Make praise specific so they know what it is you want them to do more of.
  • Keep out of the jungle yourself: stay calm, even when children aren’t doing the same.