I see it almost every day in the Pediatric Emergency Department: a little one running about the unit yelling, throwing toys, crawling under the curtains. The parent says something like “Come back here or you’ll get a whipping when we get home,” which the child ignores. The parent repeats the threat, this time in a ominous, growly voice, which again has no effect. Other parents or the nurses say “That kid doesn’t have ADHD, she just needs a good spanking!”
Spanking is a time honored tradition in America. While other developed cultures have given it up as ineffective, many parents in the US still whack away on their kids, not knowing that there are much better ways to modify a child’s behavior. Pediatricians have known for years that children who are spanked are more aggressive towards others. When parents spank a child for bad behavior, the child gets the message that hitting is okay. A doctor friend of mine tells of once slapping his 2 year-old boy’s hand when he misbehaved. The child became thoughtful, the wheels turning in his head. He then slapped his own hand, then slapped his father’s hand, trying out this new behavior Dad had showed, and Dad realized he had made a mistake.
A new study on spanking came out in October’s issue of the journal Pediatrics. It showed that children who are spanked may develop language and problem-solving skills slower than children who are disciplined other ways. When children are spanked to stop their bad behavior, they don’t learn self-control for themselves. The self control is demanded from the outside, by the angry parent. And if the child doesn’t learn self control, he can’t stay controlled enough to solve conflicts with others. The child resorts to aggression he learned from the parent. He also can’t stay controlled enough to absorb language that he hears around him.
Now, am I saying that parents should just ignore bad behavior? No way! A child absolutely needs to learn how not to be annoying, disruptive, or destructive. She must learn how to get along with others in a non-violent way. What pediatricians are saying is that there are much more effective ways to teach good behavior than spanking.
The first important thing about stopping bad behavior is to stop it immediately. Threats of future discipline, second chances, putting off punishment for later, are just ways of letting the child “off the hook.” Little kids don’t think about the future- if you don’t discipline them right away, in their minds they get away with it. You may say “don’t do that,” but your inaction tells the child that bad behavior is really okay. Our disruptive child from above learns nothing when the parent says “you’ll get a spanking when we get home.” He cannot imagine of a later time when punishment might happen because of his misbehavior now. He just can’t put that two-and-two together in his little brain yet!
A much more effective discipline is the time-out. But there are rules that make time-out work best. The first rule is that the child has no interaction during the time-out. This means putting the child in a chair facing a corner where there is nothing fun to look at. This also means that no one, even the parent, should talk to the child. Having a conversation with the child during time-out, even if it is about the child’s bad behavior, is still a reward for the child, not a punishment. The child is getting the parent’s attention, which is often the point of the bad behavior anyway.
Time-out should last one minute for each year of the child’s age: two-year-olds get two minutes of time-out, four year-olds four minutes, and so on. If a child won’t stay in a time-out chair, they then need to buckled in! One of my daughters needed buckling in, and when that upset her she would kick the wall to topple over the chair! We would have to quietly pull the chair back far enough so she couldn’t reach the wall. After the time-out, if the child agrees that they can behave better, they are free. If they can’t agree (sometimes my daughter wouldn’t) or go back to the same bad behavior, back into time-out and the clock starts afresh. This way the child learns self-control to earn their freedom.
So consider time-out instead of spanking for your kid. Spare the rod, but don’t spoil the child. Time-out is more work for a parent, but isn’t your child worth it?