Discipline: What's a Parent to Do?
The most important issue most parents face is how to provide appropriate discipline for their children, and this is a very important part of the parent-child subsystem. Psychologists use the word discipline to refer to the techniques parents and caregivers use to teach children appropriate behavior.
A Caution About Punishment
Unfortunately, when most people think of discipline, they think immediately about punishment, or techniques used to eliminate or reduce undesirable behavior. Unless people have had special training in parenting or child development, they often overemphasize punishment when disciplining children. Too often, parents end up spanking, hitting, or yelling at children. Most parents don't want to be harsh with their children, but over time they may lose their patience. They may feel that their problems are endless as young children fuss, fight, and get into things. With 2-year-olds, 65% of parent-child interactions involve the parent telling the toddler not to do something, as in "Don't touch that!" "Get down!" or "Don't do that!" (Baumrind, 1996; Hoffman, 1975).
In surveys, 84% of American adults agree with the statement, "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking" (Lehman, 1989; Straus, 1994). Sixty-five percent of parents report that they slap, hit, or spank their infants; 90% spank 3-year-olds; 35% are still hitting or spanking their adolescents at age 16 (Straus, 1994). One out of every four parents uses a belt, wooden paddle, or other object to spank his or her children (Straus & Stewart, 1999).
In the long run, spanking is not effective (Holden, 2002). When children are spanked, they eventually return to the misbehavior or replace it with other inappropriate behaviors. Hitting and spanking can cause children to fear their parents. If children try to run, or if they-strike back or talk back to their parents, the hitting usually becomes more severe. Although most spanking is not legally considered physically abusive, it is true that most physical abuse begins as physical punishment—punishment that then gets out of hand (Straus, 1994).
Another thing to consider is the message that spanking sends to children. Do we want them to learn that "might makes right" or that it's appropriate for larger people to use physical force to get smaller people to obey? Ironically, "hitting other children" is the misbehavior that parents most often identify as calling for a spanking (Lehman, 1989; Straus, 1994). What message does the child get when the parent slaps them on the hand (or swats them on the behind) and says, "Don't hit other people!"?
Studies show that children who are spanked more often are more physically violent and aggressive; are twice as likely to attack their siblings; are more likely to steal property, commit assaults, and commit other delinquent acts; and have lower moral standards and lower self-esteem (Straus, 1994; Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1997). These studies also show that adolescents who are hit by their parents are more likely to be depressed and have suicidal thoughts, and that these problems worsen the more often they are hit.
Analyzing the results of 88 different scientific studies, Gershoff (2002) found consistent correlations between physical punishment and increases in child aggression, delinquency, and antisocial behavior; increased rates of child abuse by parents; and poorer relationships between children and parents. Children whose parents physically punished them were less likely to internalize moral values, and later in life they were more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as low self-esteem, depression, and alcoholism. As adults they were more likely to be aggressive, commit crimes, and abuse their own children and spouses.
Of course, all of these findings are correlational. It could be that children and adolescents who are more violent and engage in more misbehavior simply are spanked and hit more often. To find out whether spanking actually causes negative outcomes for children, we would need to conduct an experiment: We'd need to randomly assign some children to a group that received spankings for misbehavior and other children to a group that did not. Obviously, we cannot ethically conduct this type of experiment, so we must rely on the suggestive evidence provided by correlational studies. To be fair, we also want to point out that, according to other research, the neggative effects associated with spanking may be due to the style of parenting rather than to the spanking itself (Baumrind, Larzelere, & Cowan, 2002). As you can imagine, parents who rely heavily on spanking and hitting also tend to be less warm and affectionate, less involved, and less consistent in their parenting than parents who use more positive forms of discipline.
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