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Physical punishment doesn't help, it hurts

By Deborah Sendek, Special to CNN
updated 2:49 AM EST, Thu November 10, 2011
Deborah Sendek says there are many effective strategies to discipline kids that don't involve corporal punishment.
Deborah Sendek says there are many effective strategies to discipline kids that don't involve corporal punishment.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Deborah Sendek: Video of father viciously beating daughter upset and outraged many people
  • Physical punishment can easily escalate and cross into abuse and injury, she says
  • Corporal punishment teaches violence; it's not guidance or effective discipline, she writes
  • Sendek: Proactive strategies work: clear expectations, redirection, lost privileges

Editor's note: Deborah Sendek is the program director for the Center for Effective Discipline (CED), a program of the National Child Protection Training Center. CED provides educational information to the public on the effects of corporal punishment of children and alternatives to its use.

(CNN) -- Millions of people watched a video of a Texas judge hitting his teenage daughter repeatedly with a belt. This father justified his actions as "discipline." I beg to differ.

That video wasn't a father disciplining his daughter. It showed him engaging in an act of punishment intent on hurting, humiliating and controlling her.

The video, taped by the daughter seven years ago, went viral on the Internet, accompanied by a huge public outcry. The violence, the inhumanity of the beating and the total disregard of the physical safety of this adolescent was shocking. As parents, we understand the strong and sometimes overwhelming emotions provoked when our child's behavior conflicts with our expectations. But when we allow our anger to control our behavior, what do we really accomplish?

A significant amount of research indicates that physical punishment is ineffective in parenting. Some of the effects are obvious from the Texas video.

Deborah Sendek
Deborah Sendek

Physical punishment can easily escalate and cross the line to abuse and serious injury, particularly when an instrument is used. Children become emotionally alienated from a parent who hits them frequently.

Corporal punishment teaches that violence is an appropriate response to problems or frustrations with people -- and that can lead to a cycle of violence and victimization in the child's future relationships. Research shows physical punishment makes it more likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future. Physical punishment puts children at risk for depression and anger management problems.

These research findings have been endorsed by many prominent organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, Voices for America's Children, the National PTA, and the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect that advocate against corporal punishment.

Science on spanking

So what is a parent to do? Children need guidance and discipline, but what works? Effective discipline helps a child develop self-control by teaching, guiding, modeling and explaining what is wrong and what to do instead. Effective discipline starts with our attitudes about children and their behavior.

First, we must remember that children are learning about the world and do not always know, understand or remember adult rules and social norms. Many times parents place children in situations without defining what is acceptable behavior.

Redirection, discipline or punishment must include an explanation of why a behavior is unacceptable and what behavior is expected. Many times a child's misbehavior is a mistake in judgment. We hope our own mistakes serve as learning opportunities -- we need to apply this same rule to children. We must curb our anger and allow time to think about what we want to teach.

Positive and proactive discipline strategies work. For infants and toddlers, distraction, removal and a firm voice work best. Making amends works for older children and adolescents.

An appropriate consequence for downloading pirated music, for example, would be to earn enough money to cover the cost of the music and then donate the earned money. Losing privileges resonates with children and adolescents. It is important to lay out expectations and to discuss the consequences if they aren't met.

All parents need help at times with discipline issues. Help can be as close as parenting classes at a community center, positive discipline books from the local library and the Web.

Most parents want their children to settle disagreements and handle frustration in a nonviolent way. We tell our children to "use their words," and not to hit when they are upset. But when we are displeased with their behavior, we hit them. What message does that send if the person who is supposed to love, nurture and protect you, hits you?

The right to physical safety and protection extends to adults, prisoners, and soldiers under the law. The most vulnerable among us, our children, must have that same right.

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