Discipline With Education, Empathy and Understanding - Not Corporal Punishment

By Steven Kairys, M.D.

Jersey Shore University Medical Center
K. Hovnanian Children's Hospital

Media attention to Adrian Peterson’s corporal punishment of his son spotlights the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ mindset of many parents and leaders in this country. Certainly the severity of the injuries to Peterson’s son is far from the normal consequences of corporal punishment, but the episode should bring about a fuller discussion of the value or detriment of such punishment, and whether parenting is about how to respond to misbehavior, or about how to teach a child to live a responsible life.

Many parents say they parent the way they were parented. As a society, we demand more education about how to drive a car than about how to parent a child. Polls continue to show that almost 90% of parents believe it is acceptable to use corporal punishment, usually spanking, to modify misbehavior. The parents’ usual response is  “ I turned out OK, so it must work.”

If the goal of discipline is to stamp out annoying behaviors and put a quick end to an undesirable situation, then hitting, screaming, and guilt all do work in the short term. But they also lead to shame and pain in the child, and then often to avoiding future punishments by sneaking, hiding, lying, and decreasing communication and sharing.

I would contend that the basic aim of good parenting is to teach and mentor a child to make good decisions, to be honest and trustworthy, to be empathic, to communicate effectively, to understand how to self correct when things go badly, to be a good citizen, a responsible and caring adult.

This takes time and practice, and it takes both parents proactively discussing the process and the approaches and supporting each other.

Here is a top ten of how to move toward this goal of raising a responsible child:

1.    Always show love and acceptance. The act and behavior may be a real problem, but the child should never doubt that he/she is still a loved respected individual.

2.    Try to avoid knee jerk responses to a misbehavior. Try some reflection on what happened and why. Understanding what led to the behavior can be very valuable in crafting a more constructive response. Sometimes the cause should be owned by the parent and not by the child.

3.    You can be an authoritative or a democratic type parent – both work well as long as there is consistency. For any style, talk less and act more. Also demonstrate your values to your children by how you lead your life, how you interact with your spouse or your friends, and how you show honesty and respect and responsibility.

4.    Discipline should not be arbitrary; one parent should not over rule the other. One of the major problems with corporal punishment is that the hitting is too often done with a lot of anger and as a sign of power. Punishment implies that someone in power picks a consequence that often has no relationship to the misdeed.  Taking things away,  grounding, threatening, taking away privileges rarely work. They often end prematurely because the parent has new priorities or the child learns how to manipulate the parents to forgo the punishment.

5.    Learn about natural and logical consequences, in the place of punishment. This concept attempts to alter the behavior to be corrected through self awareness and learning. For example, a natural consequence of a teen always sleeping late and missing the school bus is to have that teen deal directly with the principal; similar to an adult dealing with the boss if late for work. A natural consequence of a whining child is to walk away and not pay attention. A logical consequence of a toddler screaming at the grocery store is to not take him with you the next time. A logical consequence of  always forgetting to do the chore of feeding the pet is that pets get fed before the child gets fed. There is a cause and then a logical response; it is part of the natural order.

6.    Carry out the discipline with humor and with caring- the goal is not fear and a tearing down of self respect. The goal is to be firm and directed and consistent but also caring and supportive.

7.    Allow children able to do so, to come up with a their own consequences for their misbehavior, as long as you agree with the responses.  Often they will be much harder on themselves than you would be and the exercise gives them some ownership.

8.    For many children, misbehavior is the best way they know to get your attention. All children crave attention. Try to ignore and walk away if at all possible. Give them encouragement for trying to do the right thing; not praise for a result you approve of, but encouragement for the attempt.

9.     Be proactive. Don’t wait for a crisis to occur to get involved. Sadly, many families rarely talk to their children. One study of families with teens showed that the families spent less than 15 minutes a day sharing  and communicating with each other. A weekly family meeting can be a very positive way to respect each other and provide a forum to problem solve.

10.     Have fun being a parent. If it is not fun, then that is a clue that some things need to change. It is like having a bodily pain, it is a symptom of some thing that is not right. Parenting can be exhausting, a hassle, with episodes of stress and distress, but it should be as rewarding as anything else in your life.