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How These Researchers Convinced Parents To Avoid Physically Disciplining Their Kids

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Although parents who physically discipline their children may mean well, a growing body of research ties spankings and slapping to dismal health outcomes later in life for youngsters, including aggression and mental health issues. A group of researchers hoping to see an end to the practice recently showcased a new video-based program they say has the potential to improve parent-child interactions.

The group presented the findings of their six-month study at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, the largest annual gathering of child health researchers. The group’s research involved 325 mothers whom they recruited immediately after giving birth. They randomly grouped mother-infant pairs into two intervention groups — video and non-video — as well as a control group that didn’t receive services.

Members of the video intervention group had their interaction with their children recorded, and later received guidance on how to improve relationships with their young ones while playing or reading aloud to them. Researchers sent the non-video intervention group newsletters, learning materials, and development surveys each month during the commission of the study.

Researchers later assessed positive parenting behavior at the six-month mark and physical punishment 14 to 24 months after the start of the study. Members of the video intervention group had fewer incidences of physical punishment than their counterparts in the other groups. Researchers said that the mothers’ positive behaviors mediated that shift.

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“By bringing the parent and child closer together, we reduced the parents’ feelings that they needed to engage in physical punishment,” Alan Mendelsohn, MD, from the NYU School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City, told Medscape News.

While some members of the audience contended that the findings were premature, they acknowledged the importance of making a shift away from aggressive parenting.

The debate about corporal punishment in households, particularly those in low-income communities, picked up steam after video of Toya Graham, a Baltimore mother, slapping her teen son Michael during a riot in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s mysterious death went viral. Since the video’s release, the White House, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, and a myriad of people lauded her efforts to ensure “he will not be a Freddie Gray,” even going as far to call her “Mother of the Year.”

But a contingent of child care specialists resisted that conclusion — saying that though she had good intentions, Graham, a mother of six, could have handled the situation differently. Kathy Harter, executive director of the Consortium for Children’s Services in Syracuse, told New York Daily News that one could see the negative impact of Graham’s actions during the mother-son duo’s first interview on CNN. “The body language between the mom and the kid is terrible,” Harter said. “He never looked at her. He never looked at anybody. The body language there says, ‘I’m afraid of you,’ and that wasn’t because of that one incident.”

NFL superstar Adrian Peterson faced similar scrutiny last year after reports of him beating his four-year-old child with part of a tree branch surfaced. Peterson later received felony charges with prosecutors introducing evidence that included photos of the youngster’s bruised back, buttocks, ankles, legs, and scrotum. Like Graham, Peterson contended that he was using the same techniques he experienced as a child. The incident ended with probation, the loss of endorsements, and a labyrinth of a process to get reinstated into the NFL.

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Experts advise against disciplining children in this manner, saying that it’s not as effective in decreasing unwanted behaviors as many parents would think. Instead, physical punishment actually reinforces those habits, as well as increases depression, aggression, bullying, substance abuse, and antisocial behavior in children. Those who are physically abused stand a greater chance of inflicting the same harm on their children when they become parents. In 2008, researchers released a report imploring parents to avoid physical punishment and calling for a ban in U.S. schools.

Sheena Carter, Ph.D. of Emory University School of Medicine advises parents to create an environment of encouragement that she says could do more to change a child’s behavior than physical punishment. In a report that’s posted on the school’s website, Carter says that people should plan for their child’s inappropriate behavior by giving clear directions with eye contact and bringing toys that can keep the child entertained while in public spaces. In the event that the child acts up, parents are advised to create a non-physical punishment that’s consistent with the infraction.

The video-based program notwithstanding, resources are available for expectant parents unsure of how to effectively discipline their children and discourage negative behavior. For example, The Incredible Years program teaches parents of children between the ages of three and six various nonviolent strategies to handle difficult situations. The Strengthening Families Program, geared toward parents of youth between the ages of 10 and 14, allows parent-child pairs to strengthen bonds and learn how to manage anger and family conflict. The Positive Parenting Program also shows parents how to set clear and reasonable expectations for their children and practice self-care.

Awareness around the issue of corporal punishment and the launch of parenting programs may not cause a total paradigm shift anytime soon. Even with the decline of physical punishment among parents since the 1960s, more than two out of three people approve of the disciplinary strategy — which includes spanking, hitting, and causing physical pain — according to the American Psychological Association. In the United States, there no federal bans on spanking and 19 states allow schools to physically discipline students as long as no bodily injury is caused or marks left behind.

However, it’s a different story in some parts of the world. Thirty countries have banned physical punishment for children in all settings, including the home.