The Realities of Corporal Punishment

blogblock_corporalpunishmentRecent 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?

SCANning the Web: Check out SCAN on iTunes

We’ve spent some time this month taking a look at our website and how parents are finding resources there. We were thrilled to see more than 1,500 documents downloaded in the last 3 months of 2011, including over 500 fact sheets from our Parent Resource Center. It’s exciting to know just how many families–in Northern Virginia and beyond–are searching for help and resources to manage the challenges of parenting on our very own site. Our success also affirms that it’s the perfect time to explore NEW ways of reaching today’s tech-savvy parents. We know they’re hungry for it!

In a blog post a few months ago, we announced our new Podcasts for Parents (thanks to a grant from AT&T). Since then we’ve posted 6 podcasts which are now available on iTunes! Bonus: they were recorded by local celebrities Leon Harris from ABC7 and Lori Brooks from WASH-FM.

And that’s where YOU come in. Now that our podcasts are available on iTunes, we need parents to listen to them and rate them. The more ratings we have, the more listeners we can reach via iTunes’ search tool. So please check out one or two (or all six!) below and start talking about SCAN and parenting support on iTunes:

(And if you’re not on iTunes, don’t worry! You can download the MP3s or listen on our website here.)

SCANStar: Leon Harris

He’s a local celebrity. He’s a dad. And he just happens to be a friend of SCAN, too. We’ve watched him on the ABC7 evening news for years, but we didn’t meet him in person until he emceed our Child Abuse Prevention Month kick-off event last year where he–literally–gave out his email address to all 200 guests (many of them working in the child welfare community) and asked to be contacted for stories. We were hooked.

Fast forward a few months, and Leon was helping us again. After receiving a grant from AT&T to begin producing a series called Podcasts for Parents, Leon agreed to offer his well-recognized voice to record the audio for the first three podcasts. He talks here about meeting SCAN and looking ahead at other ways to support our mission:

BuildingBlocks: When did you first volunteer with SCAN, and what have you done as a volunteer?
Leon Harris: I’ve never really volunteered with SCAN in the traditional sense. I emceed the Allies in Prevention Awards Luncheon for them last year and had a wonderful time meeting such committed people. Then, this fall, I helped them record their first three Podcasts for Parents on Anger Management, Positive Discipline and the Pause for a Child campaign.

BB: Why did you decide to support SCAN?
Leon: I can’t think of a better way to use my time, resources and support than to assist in any way those who are making a better world possible for kids. I don’t think a day has gone by over the nearly thirty years I’ve been involved in covering the world that I haven’t seen, read or heard something about the plight of a child somewhere that broke my heart. With all the things we’ve learned from watching history unfold, I’m amazed that we still must convince people that a small investment of love in a child, and some effort in giving them a safe and nurturing environment benefits us ALL! That’s why I support groups that do the good work that SCAN does.

BB: Has anything about SCAN surprised you?
Leon: I’m in the process of learning as much as I can about SCAN. In fact, I can promise you that in the next few weeks you will see a report on my newscast about the necessary and selfless work that SCAN and its leaders are doing in our communities!

BB: What is something most people wouldn’t know by looking at you?
Leon: I went to Ohio University (where I met my wife) and began my career as an unpaid intern at CNN in Atlanta. I eventually became an anchor on CNN, and then came to WJLA in 2003.

In September, thanks to Leon’s help, we launched SCAN’s Podcasts for Parents on iTunes, and plan to record additional segments this month with another local celebrity (stay tuned for that announcement!) Be sure to subscribe to our podcasts today for future updates and new shows as they are available!