Today’s Solutions: November 29, 2021

Spanking as a form of punishment has certainly been on the decline in America, however, it hasn’t been entirely eliminated as a practice. According to JAMA Pediatrics, 15 percent fewer parents spanked their kids in 2017 compared to 1993. This is an improvement, but it also demonstrates that many parents and guardians continue to spank their children.

That said, a new analysis that delves into 69 studies on this practice offers a strong argument for putting this punishment behind you and replacing it with more constructive alternatives. The review, which was published last month in Lancet, reports that spanking doesn’t improve overall behavior, and instead exacerbates bad behavior, increases aggression, and promotes antisocial and/or disruptive behavior. In other words, the more children are spanked, the more they act out, which accomplishes exactly the opposite of its intended goal.

Child clinical psychologist and one of the review’s co-authors Joan Durrant, Ph.D., explains that “when somebody hits us, it doesn’t make things better… it makes us angry and resentful, and it makes us want to go and punch somebody else. It erodes the relationship, and it causes fear and anxiety. And so that’s what we see in children, too, because they are also human beings who respond the same way to aggression.”

Here are some effective alternatives to spanking suggested by Dr. Durrant and Helen Egger, MD, child mental health expert and founder of Little Otter, a children’s mental health practice.

Redefine your relationship with discipline

When your child misbehaves, a better approach would be to determine what motivated your child’s mistake and address it directly. Dr. Durrant offers the example of your child running through the house. Instead of immediately resorting to physical punishment, investigate why they were running. Perhaps the motivation was that your child had the energy to burn because they’ve been stuck inside all day. If that’s the case, then reiterate the rule (“don’t run in the house”) and explain why you have the rule (it can be dangerous) and then address your child’s excess energy by taking them to the park or on a hike.

Catch your children being good

Instead of focusing only on the bad, you can teach your child how to behave by reinforcing the good rather than punishing the bad. Dr. Egger suggests rewarding their good behavior when you see it as it will encourage them to continue that behavior in the future. “There’s ample evidence that what we call ‘catching children being good and praising them when they are doing good things works [to modify and improve their behavior.]”

Use “do” phrases instead of “don’t”

In the same vein as the last tip, Dr. Egger also recommends trying to adjust your child’s behavior from a ‘do’ perspective. Instead of saying “don’t run,” ask them to “use your walking feet.”

Practice your ABCs

What are the ABCs? According to Dr. Egger, they stand for: What came before the incident (Antecedents)? What actually happened (Behavior)? What are the results going to be (Consequences)?

Dr. Egger says that understanding the antecedent will allow you to predict misbehavior so that you can address the child’s state of mind or environment to prevent bad behavior from coming to pass. For instance, if you know that your child causes a fuss when asked to turn off their devices, plan ahead by letting them know how much screen time they have left. Set a timer and then give a warning when the time is almost up. Once that time is up, engage them in an alternative positive activity.

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Children crave attention from caregivers, negative or positive. Whenever possible, try to ignore small incidents like tantrums and other relatively harmless actions so that your child doesn’t learn to practice those behaviors whenever they want attention.

Dr. Egger emphasizes that while minor misbehavior should be ignored, the child’s feelings should not be. “If your child is having a tantrum because you took away a toy that they were throwing, you should acknowledge his feeling angry (there are no right or wrong feelings) in a matter-of-fact way and then move on. You might say, ‘I am going to water the plants. When you are ready, I would like to do that together.’ Or pick up a book to read to the child.”

Notice your own bad behavior

It’s important for parents to explore whether they are reacting to their child’s behavior through their own emotional meltdowns. Parenting is essentially mentorship. “It’s about being the person you hope your child will grow into being,” says Dr. Durrant. “That’s where they learn powerful lessons—by watching us. So, we need to be the people that we want our children to be.”

Work to recognize your own triggers as a parent and learn to anticipate what makes you feel compelled to spank so that you can prime yourself with an alternative.

Keep learning new parenting tools

Parenting, contrary to popular belief, is not always intuitive. Continue to educate yourself on the strategies and methods that work and what doesn’t. If you’re at a loss, Dr. Egger suggests checking out the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement against physically punishing children because it also offers alternative strategies. Little Otter’s website or your pediatrician are also good resources. Consider joining an online parenting support group or seeking the advice of mental health professionals. Remember that parenting is rewarding but challenging and you are not alone.

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