Experts & readers debate physical discipline
Corporal punishment was the subject of renewed debate in 2014 when NFL star Adrian Peterson made headlines after he was arrested following an incident during which he struck his son with a switch. Peterson claimed he didn’t do anything wrong and that he was disciplining his son just as he had been disciplined as a boy in East Texas. Peterson left the 4-year-old with cuts and bruises on his legs, back and buttocks.
It was back in the news in September 2018 when a charter school in Georgia reinstituted paddling as a discipline for students.
“People have very strong feelings on this subject,” says Bahira Trask, PhD, professor of human development & family studies at the University of Delaware. “As a rule, the majority of Americans believe in some form of corporal punishment, spanking or more.” One recent study found that 70 percent of parents say they spank their children. Though upper middle class parents tend not to use corporal punishment, it is a misconception that only minorities spank, Trask says.
Corporal punishment includes everything from a spank on the bottom or a slap on the wrist to striking with belts, switches, books or whatever’s around, says Christian Joy Dozier, MA, a therapist at the Center for Growth in Philadelphia.
Because intensity and severity varies widely, at times the line between discipline and child abuse is murky at best. Most agencies consider it abuse when it leaves a mark.
What’s behind the instinct to use corporal punishment?
“We never find it acceptable to hit a spouse or coworker, so why children?” asks Charlene Scott, MS, a psychotherapist at the Mindful Therapy Center in Marlton, NJ. Perhaps one explanation is what Scott calls “a low tolerance for frustration because of our busy lives.” Striking a child may release some frustration for parents, she says. Parents don’t know what else to do, and because they were never taught another way, they do what their parents did. Furthermore, corporal punishment is easy; it’s done quickly without much thought.
Dozier understands why many parents use corporal punishment: “It’s an immediate response to what the child is doing wrong. It’s quite clear to the child what the punishment is for.”
Say a child reaches toward a hot stove; a slap on the outstretched hand sends an unambiguous message about the seriousness of the situation.
Scott compares this approach to applying a Band-Aid. “It may stop the behavior in the moment, but in the long term it doesn’t solve the behavior issue” because it doesn’t teach why the action is wrong.
Perhaps more worrisome, corporal punishment shows children that they don’t need to consider the well-being of other people, says Scott.
Next page: pitfalls of and alternatives to corporal punishment + reader thoughts
Dozier cautions parents who employ corporal punishment to do so in moderation. Administering a physical punishment often or for minor offenses can be confusing for kids. And studies show that corporal punishment can have long-term traumatic effects, says Trask. Research shows that in addition to the risk of physical injury, corporal punishment:
- Damages a child’s self-esteem
- Can lead to aggression
- Can lead to bullying behavior
Discipline alternatives to corporal punishment
“We need to teach parents better methods and strategies,” says Trask. Just as there are classes for expectant parents and nursing mothers, there should be outlets for parents to share their discipline experiences and learn from others. “The most important thing is for people to come together and talk about raising kids today,” she says. Parenting classes are generally available at churches, universities and community centers.
Discipline is difficult in the moment, says Scott, and it might be difficult for parents who’ve relied on physical punishment to break away from that method. But “There are so many alternatives that will teach kids more,” including:
- Timeouts — Removing a child from a situation to allow time to think about his actions
- Positive and negative reinforcements — Rewarding good behavior and taking away toys or privileges for bad behavior
- Natural & logical consequences — Allowing a child to experience the consequences of his actions, such as receiving poor grades for not doing homework
- Discuss the child’s behavior in depth — “A lecture can be torture for a child!” notes Dozier.
Though it may be difficult to find the right words, always explain your punishment and help kids connect it to their behavior. Above all, be sure to set rules and clear expectations and then follow through. “Mean what you say,” stresses Scott. “Then children will quickly learn to trust what you say.”
Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.