“Fewer Parents Are Spanking Their Children” read headlines this week. This news comes on the heels of a report published in Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics), which came to the conclusion that our nation’s parents are spanking less.

Pediatricians around the country just might be saying to themselves, “It’s about time.” Way back in 1998, the AAP Policy Statement urged against use of corporal punishment (such as spanking, hitting with objects, pulling a child’s hair, shaking a child, jerking a child by the arm and other actions that intentionally cause physical pain.)

Keep in mind that this news isn’t saying that parents aren’t disciplining their children. Each of us needs discipline, whether we practice self-control as adults by showing up for work on time or whether it’s mom or dad reminding us as a teenager to clean up our bedroom so we don’t attract critters. Instead, parents are reporting that they are using more non-physical discipline, such as time-outs, taking away privileges or sending the child to his or her room for misbehavior.

Spanking has long been a hotly-debated topic, and oftentimes, parents are staunchly embedded in their personal viewpoint as to the effectiveness and appropriateness of spanking. Some believe that spanking is a parent’s prerogative; others view it as a form of maltreatment.

Whether you’re an advocate or opponent of spanking, it’s hard to deny the black-and-white data. Study after study finds that children who are spanked are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors like arguing, screaming, bullying, destroying things and threatening others. They are more likely to develop low self-worth, fear adults, feel unloved, unwanted and helpless, and seek revenge. As adults they are more likely to be depressed, use alcohol, have more anger, hit their own children, hit their spouses and engage in crime and violence.

Dr. Stephen Bavolek, PhD, a recognized expert in the areas of child abuse prevention and treatment, says that one big misconception concerns spanking and child abuse. People say, “I spank my child but I’m no child abuser. And, it’s true that physical violence against a child can range on a continuum from mild to severe. But it’s like stealing. You don’t teach your child that stealing little things is OK and it only becomes wrong when you steal big things.”

Dr. Bavolek contends that spanking is a contradictory action. He says that if a child is reaching for something dangerous, the moment you hit the hand, the focus is on the pain rather than the danger. You’ve lost your time to teach. It would be better to protect the hand, while saying, “Hot, hot, NO.” When pain is inflicted to teach, the pain always overrides the logic.

Even though a child’s behavior can be exasperating and frustrate his parents beyond measure, he still has a natural desire to please them. In 1998, Pediatrics published “Guidance for Effective Discipline” which wrote, “…the best educators of children are people who are good role models and about whom children care enough to want to imitate and please.”

The article advises parents on creating conditions to promote positive behavior:

• Maintain a positive emotional tone through play and parental warmth and affection for the child.

• Provide attention to the child and be interested in their school and activities.

• Convey respect and make negative experiences less stressful.

• Be consistent with similar behavioral situations.

• Be flexible, particularly with older children and adolescents, through listening and negotiation to reduce episodes of non-compliance with parent expectations (which helps to improve moral judgement).

• Give children the opportunities to make choices when appropriate and to evaluate the potential consequences of their choice.

• Help children learn to use words to express their feelings.

My favorite advice is “ignoring trivial misdeeds.” I can still hear our pediatrician, a Navy veteran, saying, “There are hills over which we fight battles, and this is not one of them.” This refers to a strong-willed little girl who refused to take her vitamins.

When parents are loving and nurturing role models, children will imitate that behavior. That desire to please can be used to help a child learn to maintain self-control and self-discipline. We tend to punish children for doing the wrong thing, but praising them for doing the right thing can foster positive consequences.

Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dunebrook, call (800) 897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at pam@dunebrook.org.

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