Punishment is defined as the application of a negative stimulus to reduce or eliminate a behavior. There are two types typically used with children: punishment involving verbal reprimands and disapproval and punishment involving physical pain, as in corporal punishment.
Many parents use disapproving verbal statements as a form of punishment to alter undesired behavior. When used infrequently and targeted toward specific behaviors, such reprimands may be transiently effective in immediately halting or reducing undesirable behaviors. However, if used frequently and indiscriminately, verbal reprimands lose their effectiveness and become reinforcers of undesired behavior because they provide attention to the child. Verbal reprimands given by parents during time-out are a major cause of reduced effectiveness of this form of discipline. Verbal reprimands should refer to the undesirable behavior and not slander the child’s character.
Corporal punishment involves the application of some form of physical pain in response to undesirable behavior. Corporal punishment ranges from slapping the hand of a child about to touch a hot stove to identifiable child abuse, such as beatings, scaldings, and burnings. Because of this range in the form and severity of punishment, its use as a discipline strategy is controversial. Although significant concerns have been raised about the negative effects of physical punishment and its potential escalation into abuse, a form of physical punishmentspankingremains one of the strategies used most commonly to reduce undesired behaviors, with >90% of American families reporting having used spanking as a means of discipline at some time.15 Spanking, as discussed here, refers to striking a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intention of modifying behavior without causing physical injury. Other forms of physical punishment, such as striking a child with an object, striking a child on parts of the body other than the buttocks or extremities, striking a child with such intensity that marks lasting more than a few minutes occur, pulling a child’s hair, jerking a child by the arm, shaking a child, and physical punishment delivered in anger with intent to cause pain, are unacceptable and may be dangerous to the health and well-being of the child. These types of physical punishment should never be used.
Despite its common acceptance, and even advocacy for its use,16 spanking is a less effective strategy than time-out or removal of privileges for reducing undesired behavior in children. Although spanking may immediately reduce or stop an undesired behavior, its effectiveness decreases with subsequent use. The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to systematically increase the intensity with which it is delivered, which can quickly escalate into abuse. Thus, at best, spanking is only effective when used in selective infrequent situations.
The following consequences of spanking lessen its desirability as a strategy to eliminate undesired behavior.
Spanking children <18 months of age increases the chance of physical injury, and the child is unlikely to understand the connection between the behavior and the punishment.
Although spanking may result in a reaction of shock by the child and cessation of the undesired behavior, repeated spanking may cause agitated, aggressive behavior in the child that may lead to physical altercation between parent and child.
Spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to conflict and has been associated with increased aggression in preschool and school children.17
Spanking and threats of spanking lead to altered parent-child relationships, making discipline substantially more difficult when physical punishment is no longer an option, such as with adolescents.
Spanking is no more effective as a long-term strategy than other approaches,18 and reliance on spanking as a discipline approach makes other discipline strategies less effective to use.19 Time-out and positive reinforcement of other behaviors are more difficult to implement and take longer to become effective when spanking has previously been a primary method of discipline.
A pattern of spanking may be sustained or increased. Because spanking may provide the parent some relief from anger, the likelihood that the parent will spank the child in the future is increased.20
Parents who spank their children are more likely to use other unacceptable forms of corporal punishment.21 The more children are spanked, the more anger they report as adults, the more likely they are to spank their own children, the more likely they are to approve of hitting a spouse, and the more marital conflict they experience as adults.20 Spanking has been associated with higher rates of physical aggression, more substance abuse, and increased risk of crime and violence22 when used with older children and adolescents.
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