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Is Spanking OK? Experts Say “No Way”

Hitting a child can harm their brain and immune system. Here are better ways to raise well-behaved kids.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics recently announced new guidelines warning against the harmful effects of corporal punishment, which is defined as the physical punishment of a child by an adult in an authority role. This includes spanking.

Experts have long known that children who are spanked exhibit more aggressive behaviors. But Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, believes the practice harms more than their behavior. “High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.” Put simply, spanking your child on a regular basis can actually make them sick.

“When a parent lashes out at a child and spanks them, it’s an example of the parent losing control. It does not teach good behavior,” explains Dr. Victor Fornari, a child psychiatrist at Northwell Health. “Parents get provoked, they lose control, they scream and hit, and they feel like it’s the child’s fault, but it’s not. Instead, they’ve they lost control themselves,” he says.

“Children learn from their parents,” Dr. Fornari explains. “If you use force, children use force. If you use reasoning and calm, children use reasoning and calm.”

So what are some effective ways to shape your child’s behavior and deal with moments that you’d rather avoid? Here are Dr. Fornari’s suggestions for the best ways to discipline a child:

1. Stay calm

“If you want to teach kids to be cooperative and abide by the rules, you must also be cooperative and abide by the rules,” Dr. Fornari says. “Don’t model out-of-control behaviors like screaming and hitting.” He stresses the importance of parents recognizing their own limits; if you are feeling too emotional, he adds, you should take a break to calm down and think things over. “Some parents see this as a sign of weakness, but it’s not,” he says. “My kids used to joke—they’d say, ‘How do you know when Daddy’s angry?’ and the answer was ‘when he’s quiet.’”

So know when you need to separate yourself from a situation so you won’t say and do things you’ll regret.

2. Present a united front

If there are two parents involved, mutual support is a must. “When one parent contradicts another, they’re both sending mixed signals to the child,” Dr. Fornari says. Not only will that not result in better behavior, but it will often lead to the child pitting one parent against the other, which is no good for anyone.

What if you and your partner don’t see eye-to-eye on a given situation? Dr. Fornari says it doesn’t matter. “You don’t have to always agree, you just need to present a united front,” he says. That may mean you both need to hit pause and take a time out together, in private, to talk through a plan. If one parent has already begun a course of action, the other must fall in line. And, he says, “I usually suggest that the more permissive parent deliver any harsh news, like a consequence, so that they become the heavy and that responsibility doesn’t always fall on the less permissive parent.”

3. Create clear expectations

If a child knows what is expected of them and is aware of the consequences in advance, they will usually make decisions that are in line with what parents deem acceptable. If things haven’t been clear in the past, though, it may take your child some time to get with the program. But Dr. Fornari says if you stick with it, your child will eventually come around.

This type of behavior modification technique works on all of us, according to Dr. Fornari. He points to the example of credit card companies. “If you don’t pay your minimum payment each month, they suspend your charges. Period. If you call them and ask for an extension for payment, they’ll say sure, pay when you can, but we’re suspending your charging privileges until you pay.” There’s no uncertainty, no negotiating. It’s pretty simple. “The clearer you are with expectations about behavior and consequences, the better,” he says.

4. Be consistent

It’s not easy, but parents must be consistent in their expectations and consequences. That might mean having to leave a fun party or taking away a gaming control mid-move when a situation arises and a consequence needs to be given. Once misbehavior consequences are announced in advance, if the misbehavior persists, then the resulting consequence needs to be enforced.  Although this may result in a child being upset, the parent needs to calmly remind the child that they had received a warning. 

5. Know the difference between rights and privileges

“Video games, iPads and cell phones are not basic human rights,” Dr. Fornari says. “Sometimes parents forget that.” He reminds parents that we are required to provide a safe environment for children—shelter, food, things like that. TV and games are a treat. And if children don’t behave properly, these tech toys can be used as leverage to adjust behavior. “If expectations for behavior have been made clear and the child continues to misbehave, it is perfectly acceptable to take away a privilege.” Eventually, kids will learn that if they want to keep playing Fortnite or texting friends, they will have to tweak their behavior.

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Published September 27th, 2018

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