The age-old question for parents – opinions on whether children should be physically punished has divided the room. Let’s face it: parenting can be rushed, overwhelming, and demanding. Balancing parenting with all our other responsibilities is stressful, and when it comes to how we parent our children, it seems like everyone’s a critic.
One common topic of contention is physical punishment. Some parents are vehemently against it, while for others, it’s their go-to solution – nothing else seems to work. We get out of the comfort zone and find out what’s appropriate, and why.
Why do some parents resort to using physical punishment?
It’s safe to assume that most parents don’t enjoy physically punishing their children. If they do, it’s because they believe it to be the most effective solution, or because they’re in a stressful situation, fed up with misbehaviour, and unable to think of a better response. After all, physical punishment often results in a child’s immediate compliance.
Actually… immediate compliance sounds great. What’s so bad about physical punishment?
It doesn’t work in the long run.
Although children may immediately comply to avoid physical punishment, long-term changes in behaviour do not occur. Why? The experience of being physically punished doesn’t teach children what to do. It doesn’t show children how to better control their impulses, how to peacefully negotiate conflicts, or help them develop feelings of compassion and social responsibility. When researchers in New Zealand interviewed 80 children ages 5 to 14, they found that around half of them didn’t understand the disciplinary message behind physical punishment.
It negatively affects children.
“My parents spanked me, but I turned out fine.” Some people may say this, believing that physical punishment is not that bad. While it is true that not all children who experience physical punishment are negatively affected, consider this statement: “My grandmother smoked excessively and still lived to a ripe old age.” This certainly doesn’t mean that we should smoke without regard for the consequences. The same goes for physical punishment – not all children suffer the negative effects of physical punishment to the same degree, but scientific evidence shows many negative effects – why put our children at risk?
Research has shown that physical punishment causes fear, distress, slower brain development and lower academic achievement. When used frequently, it is linked to increased aggression, antisocial behaviour, and a range of mental health problems including depression, unhappiness, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, use of drugs and alcohol, and general psychological maladjustment. The short-term solution may seem to ‘solve’ the problem, but the long-term effects are damaging, both to the child and to the parent and child relationship.
It is dangerous when done in an emotionally charged environment.
Sometimes, physical punishment is done in response to a child’s misbehaviour, out of anger and without much thought. For those of us who tend to be more reactive and emotionally driven, it is better to stay away from physical punishment entirely to avoid accidentally crossing the line. Not only could it bring the potential for physical harm, but studies have also shown that children tend to develop more behavioural problems when physical punishment is doled out frequently and in anger.
The big question – What can parents do instead?
Just as we cannot treat every problem with a hammer, we need to have many tools in our parenting box of tricks. Here are some strategies to expand your parenting toolbox for the next time your child is uncooperative.
Just like adults, children experience anger, sadness, anxiety, and fear. However, they are not as well-equipped to self-regulate and need opportunities to learn and practice. Studies have shown that children who are emotionally coached have fewer emotional and behavioural problems and tend to develop better social skills and peer relationships.
Help your children develop socio-emotional regulation skills by taking time to see things from their perspective and making them feel understood and respected. Speak with them about their emotions and brainstorm strategies for dealing with negative emotions (and the situations that trigger such emotions).
Have clear expectations and explain the “why”
It is important to engage children in genuine, two-way conversations about your standards. Besides telling your child what’s acceptable and what’s not; guide them in understanding the rationale behind your rules and give your children the opportunity to ask questions and express their concerns.
When misbehaviour occurs, parents can also guide their children in processing their behaviour. What was wrong with their behaviour? What is an appropriate action to right the wrong?
Use consequences or take away privileges
When enforcing consequences, parents must take care to remain respectful and reasonable. Consequences should be related to and proportionate to the inappropriate behaviour, and applied right after it occurs, privately when possible. Before withdrawing privileges, give 1 or 2 warnings so that it doesn’t come as a surprise to children. They can choose between stopping their behaviour or living with the consequences.
Remember to stick to consequences – once set, enforce them consistently.
Lastly, positive feedback and encouragement go a long way. Giving well-timed praise and approval will help children feel loved and appreciated.
An important note on developmental considerations
Discipline should be about changing behaviour, not punishment. It should help children develop self-discipline and become emotionally and socially mature adults. It is helpful for parents to communicate their needs calmly and be willing to negotiate mutually beneficial solutions with their children.
The methods for disciplining children should change as they grow older. Knowing what children can do and understand will help us to approach their misbehaviour appropriately. Read this article by the Canadian Paediatric Society for a guide on age-appropriate strategies for disciplining your child.
If you have a parenting concern, contact us for a free parenting consultation at [email protected]
Written by: Helene Tan, Programme Executive, Fei Yue Community Services
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