Practicing Positive Discipline

“Spanking was a common form of discipline in my home and my school. I got spanked all the time and look how I turned out – I have a successful career, a great marriage and three wonderful children.”

Recent high-profile cases have raised to the media forefront the discussion of parental use of corporal punishment, including spanking, as a disciplinary strategy. You don’t have to go far to find someone who will anecdotally share their experiences of being spanked as a child. Many parents report the occasional spank of a child as a well-intended attempt to correct a child’s behavior. And to be clear – discipline is critically important for all children. It teaches a child to do what is right and to get along with others, even when adults are not watching. Discipline helps children to be safe and keeps others safe. Many caregivers, however, are unaware of the negative effects corporal punishment may have on a child.

The latest research confirms that hitting teaches children to use aggression and violence to solve their problems. Although hitting a child may stop the undesired behavior immediately, it may lead to altered parent-child relationships, making discipline substantially more difficult when physical punishment is no longer an option, such as with adolescents. Hitting may cause fear, anger, embarrassment or a desire to strike back. It also risks really hurting a child and makes the parent look out of control. Its effectiveness decreases with subsequent use, which may lead to a systematic increase in the intensity with which it is delivered, and may quickly escalate into abuse.

In addition to the potential negative effects, it turns out spanking is actually less effective than other positive parenting strategies. Ways to discipline with love and without spanking include distraction, sticker charts, or setting house rules with logical consequences for not following the rules.

Distraction helps to redirect the child’s attention and works best for infants and toddlers. Distraction involves directing your child’s attention to something new, while at the same time ignoring the unwanted behavior, or by making a direct but simple comment such as “No touching that.”

Sticker charts can help create a new habit and work best for preschool and school-aged children. They can help to stop unwanted behaviors such as complaining while taking asthma medication, thumb sucking or whining. First, choose the behavior you want to stop or start. Then create a chart or calendar with the child. Whenever the child goes an agreed upon amount of time without doing the bad behavior, or performs the new or good behavior, place a sticker or check on the chart or calendar. Decide together and in advance how many checks or stickers it takes to earn a reward such as a small gift, later bedtimes, or a family outing. In addition to stickers, give your child lots of praise. Make sure to make goals reasonable so the child can succeed.

House rules allow a family to agree on rules and consequences together and work best for school-aged children and teenagers. To be effective, the children need to be involved in setting up the rules and consequences and parents must follow through with the consequences. Setting logical consequences will teach the child that unwanted behaviors result in natural, negative outcomes. It is important to clearly state the expected behavior as well as the outcome (“If you ride your bike without a helmet, the bike will be taken away for a week the first time, a month the second time, and for good the third time”).

It is important to fully understand the risks of hitting as a form of discipline as well as the lack of efficacy when compared to other strategies. We encourage parents to seek out positive forms of discipline whenever possible. Regardless, when considering any form of discipline, remember these basic rules:

• Always be sure to get down to your child’s level and make eye contact.
• Be kind but firm.
• Consider your own actions and feelings when disciplining a child.
• Calm down and walk away if needed, or count to ten to gain control of your emotions.
• Be aware of your own behaviors. Children will copy what they see and hear.

Remember, kids are kids. Set realistic expectations and be consistent with rules and consequences. Look for good behavior, and reward your child when you see it. Every day, give your child hugs, praise, and encouragement. Yes – a child may “turn out just fine” if spanked, but if there are more effective forms of discipline that don’t have potential for harm – why risk it?

Jonathan D. Thackeray, MD
Jonathan D. Thackeray, MD is the Chief of the Division of Child and Family Advocacy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Associate Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. He serves as Medical Director of The Center for Family Safety and Healing and oversees the Child Assessment Center and Fostering Connections Programs. Dr. Thackeray is active in the American Academy of Pediatrics and is currently on the Board of Directors of the Ohio Chapter. He is a member of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, the Ray E. Helfer Society and the Ambulatory Pediatric Association. His professional interests include community health, recognition of sentinel injuries and intimate partner violence. He is board certified in general pediatrics and child abuse pediatrics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *