Teaching Discipline Without Abuse

Discipline, Abuse, and Power: Five Years of Headlines

About five years ago, the news media burgeoned with disturbing news about domestic partner abuse and child abuse. Then the 2016 presidential election and all the attendant drama immediately following it drowned all that out. In light of the #metoo movement and the rollercoaster of domestic and international drama playing out today, it’s easy to forget the frenzy of coverage that surrounded National Football League stars like Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings. Their stories dominated headlines for months, and the issues they brought up are as important now as they were then.

Nowadays, we’ve got our minds on other things.

Disturbing Images

A quick reminder: a security camera caught Ray Rice punching his fiancée in the face and dragging her from an elevator, while Adrian Peterson was charged with “reckless or negligent injury to a child” for beating his four-year-old son with a switch. Prosecutors dropped the charges against Ray Rice after he agreed to undergo counseling. Adrian Peterson pled “no contest” to the charges against him, paid a $4,000 fine, went on probation, and performed 80 hours of community service. Peterson has since returned to the NFL, while Ray Rice has not.

The shocking news of that year can be thought of as prelude to the media events of the past two years, which have been filled with even more shocking stories of interpersonal violence and abuse by those in power against those unable to speak out or defend themselves. The stories of 2014 received national attention and laid the groundwork for debate about critical questions we all need to face in order to ensure the safety of our families and children as we move forward in the 21st century. This article will focus on the primary question related to the abuse allegations in the Adrian Peterson situation: how do you effectively discipline your child without abusing your child?

Corporal Punishment of Children in the U.S.

According to the letter of the law, corporal punishment of children is legal in all 50 states in the U.S. and legal in schools in 19 states. An example of the typical wording of state law regarding corporal punishment can be found in the current statute in New Hampshire:

“A parent, guardian, or other person responsible for the general care and welfare of a minor is justified in using force against such a minor when and to the extent that he reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent or punish such a minor’s misconduct.”

It’s interesting to note that the New Hampshire law does not specify limits on corporal punishment. Other states, however, such as Hawaii, place limits on corporal punishment, specifying that the punishment must not “…cause substantial bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain or mental distress, or neurological damage.” The latitude allowed by the courts brings up an important point. While the judicial system does feel a compelling interest in protecting the fundamental rights and safety of children, it does not want to intrude on families. The courts shy away from placing excessive restrictions on how families discipline their children.

It’s safe to say that the courts don’t feel justified in telling anyone how to raise their children. Therefore, the burden is placed entirely on each individual family to discuss whether any form of corporal punishment is acceptable, from spanking and paddling to slaps on the wrist – all of which, according to a report from the University of North Carolina published in 2010, are still common occurrences in the U.S.

Times Change

The most difficult part of discussing the issue of corporal punishment is the fact that many adults who are now parents or teachers grew up being spanked, paddled, switched, or worse. Adults who grew up with spanking and similar forms of corporal punishment often think, “Well, I turned out just fine, so it obviously can’t be all that bad.” Criticizing the actions of our parents can feel like questioning their underlying character, which makes many of us uncomfortable.

However, history, even very recent history, is filled with examples of things which used to be commonplace but are no longer acceptable. We change, and with change comes challenge. Compare social circumstances of fifty years ago with those of today. It’s easy to see the growing pains it took us to get here.

There’s no need to catalog every step of our journey through the Civil Rights Era, the Women’s Rights Movement, and the revolution in attitudes toward same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights to remember it was not a walk in the park. Suffice it to say that we’ve come a long way. It hasn’t been easy. And we still have a long way to go. The same holds true for the ways in which we educate and discipline our children. We’re better now than we were fifty years ago – mostly. But we can still benefit from examining our behavior and attitudes, learning where they came from, and deciding if the way we do things helps or hurts our kids.

What the Research Says

The overwhelming preponderance of research suggests corporal punishment is not an effective long-term disciplinary strategy for children. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) have taken official positions against its use. In a comprehensive study on the effects of physical punishment on children in the United States, “Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effect on Children,” researcher Elizabeth Gershoff discovered that children who experienced corporal punishment were associated with problems in the following areas:

  • Antisocial Behavior
  • Aggression
  • Delinquency
  • Quality of parent-child relationships
  • Overall Mental Health
  • Ability to understand socially acceptable behavior

How to Discipline Children Without Abuse

The most common time for parents or teachers to use physical punishments on children is when they, themselves, feel angry. Therefore, the first thing adults should do when they want to use corporal punishment is take a deep breath. Then, they should revisit the situation when they feel less emotional. Once the air is clear, the APsaA recommends the following strategies:

  • Talk to children about their behavior. Listen to what they have to say about how they’re acting. Explain why their behavior is undesirable and why you want them to change it. This will teach them to use words as opposed to physical violence to solve problems. It will also teach them to discuss their emotions in a productive and proactive manner.
  • Teach rather than Punish. View each discipline moment as an opportunity to teach children about how to successfully manage their behavior. Explain the why behind rules and consequences rather than making and enforcing them like an autocrat. This way, children learn to follow rules because of the underlying principles behind them. They don’t simply follow rules to avoid punishment.
  • Reward the Positive. This is as true for teenagers as it is for preschoolers. Children respond well to positive praise. Praise boosts their feelings of self-worth while teaching them the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Side note: this works for adults, too.
  • Lead by Example. Anyone who works with children knows they mostly do what you do, rather than what you say. Therefore, it’s always crucial for adults to model the behaviors they want children to display. Otherwise, children will experience a disconnect between the words and actions of the adult.  In which case they will almost always default to the behavioral example rather than the verbal admonishments.

Corporal Punishment in the United States: Is it Time For a Change?

More than 30 countries around the world have laws in place which prohibit using corporal punishment on children altogether, and over 70 countries have laws in place which prohibit using corporal punishment in schools. In the U.S., we see individual liberty and freedom from government scrutiny fundamental tenets of our society. No national law against corporal punishment exists, and over a third of our states allow corporal punishment in schools.

In the U.S., we’re generally reluctant to invite the government into our lives. We resist placing federal guidelines on the rights of our states to manage their own educational systems. But the worldwide trend toward reconsidering traditional views on the corporal punishment of children gathers momentum with each passing year. In the U.S., children’s mental health experts agree: corporal punishment is detrimental to the overall physical, emotional, and psychological well-being and development of children. The question of whether use it or not should be revisited in every family and school across the country. Our children and students are counting on us as adults to formulate a reasonable, logical, and responsible answer.