In from the nippy October weather, Phoenix Brown, 3, is playing with a toy train at a neighbor's house when it's whisked from his hands by his younger playmate. His screams are futile, but the bite marks Phoenix leaves in her little arm are not. His mother, speechless by his sudden belligerence, is apt to give him the standard spanking. But she withholds, realizing that this form of discipline is not helping. As his spankings increase, so will his aggression, say experts presenting the strongest evidence yet that physical discipline can be a catalyst for mental health problems later in life.
A recent survey, led by researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans, followed nearly 2,500 youngsters in 20 cities at ages 3 and 5 over two years. The study found that the odds of a child being more aggressive — defiant, physically violent, prone to temper tantrums — at age 5 increased by 50 percent if he had been spanked more than twice a month. In lieu of conversation on "Good Morning America" and online parenting sites, the study has peaked the interest of parents wondering what disciplinary action, outside of spanking, can be most effective.
"Children need guidance and discipline," Catherine Taylor, community health sciences professor and co-author of the study, told the Deseret News. "However, parents should focus on using positive, non-physical forms of discipline that are appropriate to the child's age."
The study was the first of research regarding the effects of physical discipline to control other factors — including parents' use of drugs or alcohol, depression, stress levels, or spousal abuse — that can contribute to a child's aggression. The association still remained.
"The findings of the study are not surprising," said Ron Ensom, with the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. "They are consistent with the growing body of research that has demonstrated that physical punishment has enduring — actually lifespan — consequences that include poorer mental health."
A cultural frame
Notwithstanding the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics against spanking, most parents in the U.S. approve of and have used corporal punishment as a form of child discipline, the study found.
For Lisa and Ken Brown, spanking had become a daily part of discipline in their home in North Ridgeville, Ohio, because that was how she and her husband grew up. "We had been conditioned to think it was what you were to do to be a good parent," Lisa Brown said.
The survey found that 45.6 percent reported not spanking their 3-year-olds in the previous month, 27.9 percent reported spanking once or twice that month, and 26.5 percent reported spanking more than twice.
Many countries outside of the U.S. have taken legal action to change parenting tactics. Since Sweden's first corporal punishment ban in 1979, spanking has been outlawed in 32 countries, including Spain, Israel and Scandinavia.
For many of these countries, it has, more than anything, helped engender a mindset. "If we as parents cannot convince our children with words, then we shall never convince them with violence," said a member of the Swedish Parliament when the bill on the anti-spanking law was put forward.
Spanking, however, remains controversial as critics find the results of these studies difficult to evaluate. "You can't assess its effects like you would a drug, in a randomized controlled clinical trial, because it's unethical for researchers to instruct a random group of parents to spank their kids and a second group not to," science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote in an article for Slate.
Discipline as a tool
Jane Nelsen believes that one purpose of positive discipline is to teach children to do what is right when no one is looking and to learn problem-solving skills so they can be responsible from the inside out. Nelsen is a licensed marriage, family and child therapist in South Jordan and author of the Positive Discipline series, a series of books that have been integrated in parenting education classes taught across the country. She warns parents against punishment that increases power struggles, revenge cycles or blind obedience driven by fear.
"Punishment works in the moment. If all you are interested in is stopping the behavior right now, physical discipline will do it. But most parents do not consider the long term, about what it is teaching their child and what kind of skills they are learning in the future."
Children often don't listen or obey because they are hearing too many commands and being told what they should do, Nelsen said. Instead of lecturing, ask questions. This allows children to find solutions: What do I do to make sure my teeth are clean? What is my plan for catching the bus? What will I do with my toys when I'm done?
"It's brain science," Nelsen said. "When someone makes a command, the body stiffens and you go into resistance. When a child is respectfully asked a question, a message goes to the brain that triggers a search for an answer."
Learning how to search for solutions allows children to develop a belief in their own capability and develop problem-solving skills that will be pivotal as they grow up.
Parents cannot teach children until they create a connection with them, Nelsen said. "It is a brain (and heart) thing." Connection creates a sense of openness, safety and encouragement that allows the brain to open up to learning.
Brown found that when she stopped using physical discipline as a means of discipline and instead let her son know he was loved and deserving of her respect, his conduct changed. "I think that when a child misbehaves, it's a sign that they need you more," Brown said. They need you to talk them through things and help them deal with the complex emotions they are feeling, instead of being dismissed. "They need love, not abandonment."
Often, asking your child for a hug can soothe a temper tantrum, Nelsen said. It allows them that connection. "When children feel a connection, they feel belonging and significance," Nelsen said. "Often that is enough for misbehavior to stop."
Active vs. reactive
"Parents often react to short-term frustration in a way that blocks their long-term goals," Joan Durrant, a psychologist and professor of family social sciences at the University of Manitoba, told the Deseret News. "Yelling and hitting will only teach your child the opposite of what you want her to learn in the long run. Every time you react this way, you lose an opportunity to show your child a better way."
Durrant co-authored "Positive Discipline," a book that is available free online for parents looking for ways to discipline positively.
This resource gives parents a framework that can help them think through the moment before they react and that sets long-term goals.
Instead of spanking, the AAP recommends timeouts, which allow children to ruminate upon their emotions and think about what they did wrong. Self-soothing is a very important life skill, Nelsen said. She suggests "positive timeout," in which the child helps create a place that will help him cool down when he is upset. The child chooses what his soothing place will look like and what it will be called.
Instead of sending children to timeout, Nelsen said, ask them if it would help them to go to their feel-good place. If they decline, tell them you will go to yours. "You're modeling for them a way to handle frustrating situations."
"Positive discipline is anything but passive, permissive or easy, for that matter. You're in a constant state of trying to educate your child, and it can be exhausting at times," Brown said. "But nobody ever said parenting was easy. You're responsible for raising a child. If you want to raise a child who will become a free thinking, creative, compassionate individual, using positive discipline is a great way to make that happen."