When advising families about discipline strategies, pediatricians should use a comprehensive approach that includes consideration of the parent–child relationship, reinforcement of desired behaviors, and consequences for negative behaviors. Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior.
So begins the AAP’s policy statement — Guidance for Effective Discipline — which combines our knowledge of normal child development, effective parenting, and child abuse to help us advocate for the abolition of a still-all-too-common, violent, dangerous, and ultimately counterproductive measure of discipline practiced by too many parents: spanking.
The statement begins with the principle that parental expectations need to be adjusted to the age and developmental stage of the child: babies cry a lot, sometimes for no discernible reason; you can’t reason with a toddler; young children think concretely, not abstractly; two-way communication with a child with special needs can be extremely difficult; you’ll never win an argument with a teenager, so why engage them in the first place? Then, once reasonable expectations are understood, goals can be set and strategies for effective discipline can be considered:
Effective discipline requires three essential components: 1) a positive, supportive, loving relationship between the parent(s) and child, 2) use of positive reinforcement strategies to increase desired behaviors, and 3) removing reinforcement or applying punishment to reduce or eliminate undesired behaviors. All components must be functioning well for discipline to be successful.
Here are some key points regarding effective discipline in this policy statement (my emphasis in bold):
- For discipline techniques to be most effective, they must occur in the context of a relationship in which children feel loved and secure. In this context, parents’ responses to children’s behavior, whether approving or disapproving, are likely to have the greatest effect because the parents’ approval is important to the children.
- [T]he best educators of children are people who are good role models and about whom children care enough to want to imitate and please.
- Many desirable behavioral patterns emerge as part of the child’s normal development, and the role of adults is to notice these behaviors and provide positive attention to strengthen and refine them. Other desirable behaviors are not part of a child’s natural repertoire and need to be taught, such as sharing, good manners, empathy, study habits, and behaving according to principles…
- In preschool children, time-out (removal of positive parental attention) has been shown to increase compliance with parental expectations from ∼25% to 80%, and similar effectiveness is seen when used appropriately with older children.
- [I]f used frequently and indiscriminately, verbal reprimands lose their effectiveness and become reinforcers of undesired behavior because they provide attention to the child. Verbal reprimands given by parents during time-out are a major cause of reduced effectiveness of this form of discipline. Verbal reprimands should refer to the undesirable behavior and not slander the child’s character.
- Parents who spank their children are more likely to use other unacceptable forms of corporal punishment. The more children are spanked, the more anger they report as adults, the more likely they are to spank their own children, the more likely they are to approve of hitting a spouse, and the more marital conflict they experience as adults. Spanking has been associated with higher rates of physical aggression, more substance abuse, and increased risk of crime and violence when used with older children and adolescents.
The policy statement also makes it clear that while spanking takes less time and less thought for the parent, it doesn’t work! In fact, studies show:
Despite its common acceptance, and even advocacy for its use, spanking is a less effective strategy than time-out or removal of privileges for reducing undesired behavior in children. Although spanking may immediately reduce or stop an undesired behavior, its effectiveness decreases with subsequent use. The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to systematically increase the intensity with which it is delivered, which can quickly escalate into abuse.
Tomorrow: The third and final part of this series will help parents remain in command and control during inevitable parent-child conflicts by keeping these three words in mind: “Keep Things Simple.”