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The demise of corporal punishment is slow because of lack of clarity about effectiveness of different forms of child discipline.
The evidence that corporal punishment (such as spanking, smacking, or slapping) can impair child development is compelling. The accumulated research shows convincingly that parents should adopt “positive child discipline”—childrearing without corporal punishment. But research has yet to establish the best alternative form of child discipline. This uncertainty may be slowing the demise of corporal punishment.
Findings from over 1,200 studies consistently link corporal punishment to problems including aggression, antisocial behaviour, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and even diminished cognitive capacities. Children who have been subjected to corporal punishment are also at greater risk of problems in adulthood, such as substance and alcohol abuse.
Corporal punishment is not even an effective means of child discipline. Although the punishment “works” by immediately stopping a misbehavior or evoking a strong emotional response from a child (i.e., crying), it doesn’t promote good behavior. In a study that my graduate students and I conducted, based on audio recordings of home interactions, we found that most children who were slapped or spanked were misbehaving again within minutes.
The evidence is clear: corporal punishment is ineffective, outdated, and sometimes counterproductive for child development. Yet removing it from parents’ repertoire of child discipline will not be easy. Its entrenched nature is particularly apparent in the United States, where some 65% of adult Americans still approve of using corporal punishment to discipline children—a number that has fallen only modestly over time. And approval of corporal punishment is the most reliable predictor of whether parents actually hit their children.
Many parents don’t know corporal punishment disadvantages child development
Several impediments to change help explain why parents continue to practice corporal punishment. First, many remain unaware of the sizable body of evidence showing the damage it can cause for child development. Second, although corporal punishment is clearly not a good way to discipline children, we need evidence for effective alternatives. We also need to communicate better with parents about how they can discipline children without resorting to physical punishment.
“We need to have better evidence about effective child discipline alternatives. We also need to communicate better with parents about how to discipline children without using corporal punishment.”
The first impediment – people are unaware of the evidence – should not be difficult to tackle. Parents often discipline children physically because they mistakenly believe that it will improve their behavior and that it does no long-term harm. My research and others’ shows that providing information about the negative effects of corporal punishment can quickly change at least some minds.
What is the best alternative to corporal punishment?
The second impediment to change — parents not knowing how to discipline without corporal punishment — is harder to overcome. But a relatively new concept called positive child discipline can help. A minimal definition of positive discipline is simply parenting without hitting. I refer to this as the “lite” form of positive discipline.
However, the “strong” form of positive child discipline requires parents to adopt a different orientation to childrearing. Traditionally, parents have taken a “power and control” approach. Children should comply and obey; if they do not, punishment, including corporal punishment, is considered necessary. The newer orientation involves relinquishing immediate child compliance and unquestioning obedience as key goals of childrearing.
‘Strong’ form of positive child discipline changes child-rearing
“Strong” positive discipline, first proposed by the Austrian physician Alfred Adler in the 1930s, argues for a radical philosophical departure from traditional parenting practices. Parents’ primary goal, he believed, should be a loving and cooperative relationship with their children. If they achieve such a relationship, compliance and good behavior will follow, without any need for corporal punishment, along with open communication, trust, and continuing positive relationships.
Adler also believed parents need to respect their children as unique individuals with separate needs and desires. Punishments and rewards should be avoided. When possible, parents should engage in “child-centered” behavior and do what their children wish, because cooperation requires give and take from both sides. In this way, children will learn to cooperate happily without the fear of punishment or the motivation of a reward.
This approach to child discipline does not advocate wishy-washy or permissive parenting. Instead, it proposes that parents should maintain age-appropriate expectations for children, recognising that it takes years for children to learn to self-regulate. That view is very much in line with current brain research, which indicates that the frontal cortex is insufficiently developed for toddlers or preschoolers to regulate their behavior in the ways some parents want. Children’s misbehavior or failure to comply may be merely an indication of their neurological immaturity, rather than wilful disobedience.
Lack of evidence for ‘strong’ positive child discipline
That’s the theory. Since the 1970s, more than 100 books have been published by educators, parents and individuals espousing this ‘strong’ version of positive discipline. But there is little evidence for its effectiveness. Prior research provides supporting evidence for some components of such parenting (e.g., being warm and responsive, avoiding corporal punishment, promoting cooperation), but there is little comprehensive, systematic research investigating the effectiveness of the approach.
This uncertainty about the best alternative to corporal punishment poses important questions for parents. Arguably, the sharpest contrast between the traditional form of chid discipline and the strong form of positive discipline can be illustrated in the concept of “time out”.
“Uncertainty about the best alternative to corporal punishment presents parents with an important question about how they should discipline their children.”
Putting children in “time out”—advocated by “lite” positive parenters —consists of punishing the child by secluding them for a short period (typically one minute per year of age) from all people, activities, and attention. In contrast, the “strong” positive parenters argue that time out is terrible technique because it undermines developing a good relationship with the child. Instead, they argue, parents should use “time-in.”
Debate over ‘time out’ versus ‘time in’ child discipline
“Time in” involves quiet time together with the child, to allow the parent to calm the child down (if necessary) and then talk about the transgression. Depending on the child’s age, the child might sit on the parent’s lap or next to the parent. If the child is out of control, the parent should hold the child in a loving way until the child has self-regulated. The parent then should talk lovingly with the child about the offending behavior and explain how to behave better.
Thus, instead of secluding and isolating the child from relationships through “time out”, the parent connects with the child and tries to create a warm, open communication relationship.
Shifting parental practice on corporal punishment requires effective alternatives
No studies have examined the effectiveness of “time in”. I am now working with my graduate students to test whether the technique works. Evidence that it does could enhance the argument for abandoning corporal punishment by offering parents a non-punitive but effective alternative.
This work could have global significance. Beginning with Sweden in 1979, 54 countries have banned all forms of corporal punishment for children. The laws are largely motivated by the recognition of children’s right not to be hit—by anyone.
Based on the research evidence, as well as the moral imperative, it’s clear that policy makers and practitioners should steer parents away from hitting children. But the jury is still out on whether “lite” or “strong” positive parenting is the best approach for child discipline. We need better evidence to make that determination. Without such data, it may be difficult to convince some parents to give up physical discipline, despite the compelling case that corporal punishment does not contribute positively to child development.
Holden, GW, Ashraf R, Brannan E & Baker P (2016), The emergence of “positive parenting” as a revived paradigm: Theory, processes, and evidence. In Narvaez D, Braungart-Rieke JM, Miller-Graff LE, Gettler LT & Hastings PD (Eds.), Contexts for Young Child Flourishing: Evolution, Family, and Society, Oxford University Press
Holden GW, Brown AS Baldwin AS & Croft Caderao K (2014), Research findings can change attitudes about corporal punishment, Child Abuse & Neglect, 38.5
Holden GW, Williamson PA & Holland GW (2014), Eavesdropping on the family: A pilot investigation of corporal punishment in the home, Journal of Family Psychology, 28.3