Recent headlines are bringing attention to the issue of corporal punishment. Surveys show that many parents in the U.S. use physical punishment to discipline their children, even though it has been shown to be no more effective than non-violent alternatives, and the harm it can cause is real.
After 20 years of robust research, pediatricians, social workers, and other service providers know that corporal punishment is linked not only to physical injury, but also to aggression and antisocial behavior, delinquency, domestic abuse later in life, a wide range of mental health problems, disruptions in parent-child attachment, and even slower cognitive development and decreased academic achievement. As of 2012, no studies have found it to have any long-term positive effects.
It is true that our society has been gradually shifting away from corporal punishment as a means of disciplining children. However, it is still widely accepted and practiced in the United States. Physicians and other service providers have a responsibility to provide support and education to parents concerning the health and well-being of their children. But it can be a tough subject. Many parents who use corporal punishment do so because they were physically disciplined as children. We also have to consider the variations in child-rearing practices across diverse cultures. And sometimes parents resort to physical punishment due to stress and frustration, and then feel guilty afterward.
So what is the best way for service providers to have these conversations in a way that respects parental rights, is culturally competent, and is not stigmatizing? Here are some ideas:
- During regular check-ups or check-ins, ask about the child’s behavior the same way you would ask about the child’s sleep pattern or diet.
“How are things going with managing her behavior? Have you noticed any particular behavioral problems?”
These questions offer a natural opening for parents who might be hesitant to bring up any difficulties they are having with their child’s behavior. Ask the parent what kind of discipline they have used to address the issue. If they are using physical punishment, it is likely that it is not working. This is an opportunity for a general conversation about normal development. Knowledge about child development may help the parent understand what could be sparking their child’s behavior, and give them realistic expectations about their child’s abilities to control their impulses, evaluate risk, and understand consequences. Also, normalizing the experience of parent frustration and identifying positive parenting skills may decrease the likelihood that the parent will resort to corporal punishment the next time.
“When my son was her age, I can’t tell you how many times I had to tell him not to climb on the table; I would get so frustrated with him. But usually, when young children don’t follow rules it’s not because they are trying to be defiant; they just haven’t developed those skills yet. Just be patient with your daughter and take precautions to keep her safe and she will learn.”
If the situation calls for you to address the issue more directly, here are some additional tips:
- Recognize that the parent’s use of physical discipline is not uncommon, and that many of our parents and grandparents used physical discipline in our upbringing.
- Explain that strong research has shown that corporal punishment is no more effective than other forms of discipline, but that it carries many risks.
- Offer alternatives. Take time to learn more about the child and brainstorm alternative forms of discipline that might be a good fit for their unique personality and skills, their environment, and particular problem behaviors.
- Share resources in the community that they might find helpful. If possible, refer parents to a specific person in an organization, and suggest that they mention that they were referred by you.
- Offer sincere support and offer a follow-up appointment or phone call. We like this radio show from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which you could consider sharing with parents.
Have you worked with families who are working to transition from corporal punishment to more positive forms of discipline? What resources or tips can you share?