When it comes to disciplining our children, many of us rely on our own parents’ ideas of discipline as a starting point. But attitudes are changing. According to recent surveys, the idea that corporal punishment (spanking) is an acceptable way to discipline a child is becoming less popular in the U.S.1 A recent policy statement issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) outlines why spanking is bad for children, and suggests helpful alternatives.
What is Discipline?
Discipline does not simply mean punishment. The word discipline comes from the Latin “disciplinare,” meaning to teach or train (like disciple). Effective discipline takes into account the child’s age and development, and teaches her to regulate her own behavior and keep her from harm. Ideally, discipline will foster emotional functional skills in the child and reinforce the behavioral patterns desired by the child’s parents.1
Is Spanking Really That Bad?
The short answer is, Yes, it is. First of all, it doesn’t work. A 2014 study in which parents wore digital audio recorders found that any change in behavior due to corporal punishment was brief: within 10 minutes, 73% of the children who were punished in this way reverted back to the original behavior for which they were punished.2
In addition, multiple studies have shown the following:1
- Corporal punishment in children younger than 18 months increases the chance of physical injury.
- Corporal punishment sets up an unhealthy cycle: the more children were spanked, the more they later misbehaved, which results in more spanking.
- Children who experience corporal punishment are more likely to be defiant and aggressive as they age, including hitting other children.
- MRIs of the brains of young adults who, as children, were exposed to prolonged, repeated, harsh corporal punishment show a loss of grey matter. These same adults had lower performance IQ. A subset of this group that had no physical abuse but experienced verbal abuse showed loss of white matter on brain MRIs.
- Corporal punishment is associated with increased cortisol levels, which indicates increased stress.
So What Should I Do To Teach My Child Right From Wrong?
The AAP lists several goals of discipline at all ages. The following are most appropriate for infants:3
- Give your child your attention: all children want their parents’ attention. Misbehavior is often designed to get that attention. Use your time and attention to reinforce good behaviors and discourage others.
- Show and tell: parents need to model the behaviors they expect from their children, and this starts at an early age. Use calm words and actions when disciplining your child.
- Be prepared for trouble: you know your child better than anyone else, and can predict places or situations that may foster misbehavior. Make sure you are prepared for these moments with toys or activities to distract your infant.
- Know when NOT to respond: with infants, not every misbehavior needs to be corrected because they may not understand what they are doing. A baby explores with her mouth, so biting on electrical cords doesn’t warrant a scolding: simply give her something safe to chew on, and hide the cords so she won’t get hurt. This will also limit the times you have to say, “No.”
- Set limits: despite the advice of #4 above, there is one rule that applies at any age: no physical abuse of another person. So if your infant hits, kicks, bites, throws an object at, or otherwise tries to physically hurt someone else, you need to respond with a stern voice, a cross face and a simple “No biting/hitting/etc.” There is no point in telling her why this is bad, so don’t even try. She’ll get the message.
- Use positive language to teach your baby: say “Time to sit” rather than “Stop running around!”
Time outs can be effective for toddlers and older children, but not for infants. A good explanation of how to use timeouts for those children can be found here. For more tips, see this previous post on The Pulse.
- Sege RD, Siegel BS; Council on Child Abuse and Neglect; Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, AAP. Effective discipline to raise healthy children. Pediatrics. 2018 Nov 5. Pii: e20183112.
- Holden GW, Williamson PA, Holland GW. Eavesdropping on the family: a pilot investigation of corporal punishment in the home. J Fam Psychol. 2014 jun:28(3):401-6.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. What is the best way to discipline my child?