No two parents ever handle discipline exactly the same. However, there are some similarities that have been noted in families where spanking occurs. Countless studies have linked spanking to aggression, depression, and poor coping skills in children. Studies have also shown that children aren’t the only one suffering ill effects from spanking; the entire family unit suffers. One new study, which included 2,788 families, further examines that suffering and how it may disrupt the home.
According to UM social-work professors Shawna Lee and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, families that spanked children one-year-old or younger had a higher chance of child protective services (CPS) involvement when their child was between the ages of 1 and 5. In fact, 10 percent of those families received a visit from CPS during that time period. Even more concerning is the prevalence at which spanking of infants occurred; 30 percent of children under a year were spanked by their mother, father, or their mother’s partner over the previous month.
The study, which appears in the current issue of Child Abuse & Neglect, highlights the fact that parents who choose to spank (especially when their child is at such a young age) often fail themselves and their children through poor parenting skills. They may not understand how to handle negative behavior, but the bigger problem may be that parents don’t understand the difference between normal infant behavior and misbehavior.
For example, a six-month-old child will often throw things. This is normal development. While you do want to teach your child that it’s not okay to throw toys, cups, and other items (particularly at people), yelling, scolding or physical correction can end up causing more harm than good. In fact, a parent may even find that they are reinforcing the behavior by using negative discipline.
“Intervention to reduce or eliminate spanking has the potential to contribute to the well-being of families and children who are at-risk of becoming involved with the (social services) system,” Lee told Medical Xpress.
If you take the above example and flip it around, you’ll find a parent who first takes a moment to consider the behavior (throwing of an item) and what it means. At such a young age, the child is simply exploring their environment and how things work. There are many ways to stop the behavior without yelling or harming.
One parent may say, “Oh, I don’t like it when you throw things in the house.” The parent may opt to kindly take the item away and place it where the child cannot reach it.
Another parent may opt to encourage throwing of appropriate items by saying, “I don’t like when you throw cups, but I do have something you can throw” and then hand their child a wadded up piece of paper. This could be further handled by giving the child an appropriate object to throw the paper at – a small trash can or cardboard box, for example.
The important thing to remember is to approach discipline with a level head and a calm voice. If you can’t do either, it may be best to walk away until you can handle things appropriately.
The Maternal Infant Health Outreach Worker also provides some level-headed but effective discipline options. Some of the key points outlined in their “rules of positive discipline” include:
- Providing choices (although, for us, two choices are given, and if a choice is not made the first time it is offered, the choice is made for them) – such as “would you like the red shirt or the blue shirt today?”
- Reducing the number of rules. Our only REAL rules are to be safe and to respect yourself and others. These two rules cover almost everything else that is important to us as a family (use kind words instead of hands, no jumping off of furniture, pick up after yourself, do not go near the street without the hand of a grown-up, do not play with knives or light sockets or fire, etc.)
- Be CONSISTENT, have clear expectations, and always follow through with what you say. (Think of that old saying ‘say what you mean and mean what you say.’)
- Use “I” statements. This morning, my “I” statement was “I will not take you to school in dirty clothes.”
- Encourage desired behavior by giving your child a hug and praising when they do things like share, or follow directions given.
- If possible, ignore negative behavior like tantrum throwing. Let natural consequences take precedence over parental consequences (missing out on a field trip at school because they failed to do their homework), but if you have to set a consequence, try to create one that most closely resembles those that would naturally occur. If our children fail to brush their teeth, they miss out on any special treats because I won’t add the extra worry about their teeth needing fillings if they can’t care for their teeth properly.
- Respect your child’s feelings. “Feelings are neither right nor wrong. They just are.” You can make clear observations, “Oh, you must be really sad/angry/disappointed” when your child throws a tantrum over something, and you can try to look at the situation and see it for what it is. For example, if you have been running errands all day and you’re on your very last one when your child starts throwing a tantrum over something that seems unimportant, consider the idea that your child is tired and overstimulated. Try to empathize (e.g. “I bet you’re worn out from all the running around. Me too. I’m so sorry, but we’re almost done.”) as best as you can. Another option to consider (if, for example, your child is throwing a tantrum because they aren’t getting their way) is to say, “Oh, you must be really angry that you can’t (have that toy/eat a cookie before dinner/watch television right now). It’s okay to be angry, but I don’t listen to tantrums. You’re welcome to take it to your room.” In this instance, you can gently carry your child to their room, close the door, and say nicely, “Feel free to come out as soon as you’re all done.”
- Provide routines. Bedtime routines can help curb negative bed time behavior. Daytime routines can help your child learn what to expect next, and thereby reduce the number of tantrums and overstimulation.
- Provide love, even when your child’s behavior is inappropriate. Rather than yell, whisper. If you have to send your child to his/her room, give a kiss before closing the door. Sometimes, when your child is overwhelmed or unable to process emotions, a hug or a cuddle, paired with some empathetic words that give words to their feelings will do the trick. We have one that we do slow breathing with because he can quickly become overwhelmed. He snuggles on a lap and we do the breathing with him while using a calm whisper-voice to instruct. We call this a “time-in” rather than a “time-out.”
One key point that I feel is important (especially in my household of seven), but not listed in these “rules of discipline” is to recognize that each child is different. If you’re just starting to learn how to discipline in a way that does not include yelling or spanking, stop to consider why your child is misbehaving. Think of what you would want most if you were feeling the way your child is. Try that first. If that doesn’t work, give your child choices that you can live with (e.g. your child is throwing a tantrum and you’re not sure why you could ask, “Are you angry right now?” If they continue to scream, offer options of a snuggle or quiet time in their room. If they don’t come to you for a snuggle, you can place them in their room.). In time, you and your child will get to know each other better and you will start to learn how to handle each unique situation.
Most of all, remember that YOU are human. You will make mistakes. Treat these as learning opportunities for you AND your child. If you yell instead of using a calm voice, you can say afterwards, “I am so sorry for yelling at you, honey. That wasn’t the right way to handle things.” Do NOT use excuses (and you can quickly recognize an excuse by listening to yourself. If you use the word “but,” you are making an excuse).
When children see that even grown-ups make bad choices (AND own up to those mistakes), they learn how to treat themselves gently while still taking accountability for their actions. When they see that you treat them with kindness, empathy, and love when THEY make mistakes, they learn how to treat others this way. They also learn how to put their own coping skills into practice.
- Exposure to Negative Consequences of Spanking may Change Parent Views on its Efficacy
- Study Ties Spanking at Age Five to Higher Levels of Aggression in Children
- Physical Punishment Linked to Mental Health Issues in Recent Study