The controversy surrounding NFL star Adrian Peterson using a switch to discipline his 4-year-old son inspired pundits and parents to talk about right and wrong treatment of children.
A generation or so ago, using harsh physical punishment to discipline children was commonplace in homes and schools. Since then experts have demonstrated the potential harmful effects of physical punishment and many Americans consider it abuse.
However, physical punishment continues to be embraced. Proponents argue that if the switch (or belt or paddle or hand) was good enough for them, why not their children? And many maintain that lighter forms of physical punishment, such as spanking, are not harmful when administered with restraint.
What does current evidence say? Is spanking ever OK?
that there is an increased risk of mental health disorders, including personality disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and drug and alcohol use when harsh physical punishment is used to discipline children,” says Vaughan Gilmore
, LMSW, LCDC, a social worker with Menninger’s Adolescent Treatment Program
. While spanking doesn’t always fall on the harsh side of the physical punishment spectrum, “there are so many better alternatives that the risks outweigh the benefits.”
Know the Risks
Some of those risks include:
Damaging the parent-child relationship. “Children may fear the parent who physically punishes them and not want to go to that parent when struggling with other issues. This can significantly damage the relationship between the parent and the child.”
Implementing punishment at the wrong time. “Punishment only works if implemented correctly.” For example, a child who is punished two hours after misbehaving might not remember the reason behind being spanked, only that it hurt.
Reinforcing violence. When parents use physical punishment to discipline their children for hurting someone (such as hitting a friend or biting a fellow preschooler), they only reinforce the behavior they want to stop. Children learn by watching others, especially their parents. “If we are teaching children to use aggression, then we shouldn’t be surprised if they are using aggression on others.”
Spanking harder than intended. “Parents may think they are using a reasonable amount of force, but that could easily escalate in the heat of the moment.”
For punishment to be effective, it must be immediate, consistent and given with a clear explanation of its purpose. It also it needs to come from someone with whom the child has a positive relationship, Gilmore emphasizes. Methods of discipline that don’t involve physical punishment
include timeouts, redirection, positive reinforcement of good behavior and consequences for misbehavior (such as taking away a toy or an electronic device).
Gilmore urges parents to seek ongoing support from another parent, grandparent or friend, to navigate times of conflict with their children and to discuss how they will handle discipline situations. Parenting classes also are a great way to add skills and techniques to your discipline toolkit.
But what if you’ve tried everything or find yourself wanting to resort to physical punishment?
“If you are alone, take a break until you can calm down; then have a conversation with the child about the behavior,” Gilmore says. “Try not to get too emotionally distressed yourself. If you have another parent or source of support around, ask for help. And know you are not alone. Raising children is hard work.”