Photography by Mike Morbeck
In light of the recent controversy surrounding Adrian Peterson’s physical discipline of his 4 year-old son, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about the effectiveness of different types of discipline for children. Although hitting and other forms of physical punishments are widely unaccepted in our culture today, there are many people who continue to rely on this style of correction with young children, especially. It is also worth noting that physical discipline has always been a form of punishment in our culture and is likely here to stay. However, I believe that there are other ways of correcting behavior that are more effective than being physical with children but we will get to those later.
Let’s first start by acknowledging that parents use corporal punishment because it can be very effective and works quickly to control behavior. It makes it easier for parents to immediately communicate displeasure and deliver a strong message that the behavior is unacceptable. The hope is that the child will want to avoid getting hit and associates the negative behavior with the pain that she feels. This is what is known as “Negative Reinforcement” because the child no longer displays the problem behavior to avoid getting hit in the future. The downside of this type of punishment is that it creates anger, resentment, and most importantly, fear in the child. Instead of teaching the child to think for herself and make better decisions in the future, the lesson is to be afraid of mom or dad. On top of that, children who experience corporal punishment may have difficulty maintaining a close and connected relationship with that parent.
While physical punishment continues to be used today, there are other methods that rely on the same foundation of strongly encouraging children to avoid negative behavior but in a much healthier way. More than anything else, children, by nature, want to please adults because that is where they get love and acceptance. Also, being proactive instead of reactive is the key to success here. In my experience both as a parent and high school basketball coach, setting up clear expectations ahead of time (if possible), encouraging mutual trust and respect, and giving kids choices seem to promote positive behavior and limit problems more often than any other system. The main reason these techniques work so well together is that children, just like adults, want to know that their feelings are heard and that they are part of the solution. The more that you allow kids to participate in creating the system the more likely they are to abide by the rules and parameters of it.
Even with young children, like Adrian Peterson’s son, you can communicate what you expect at the appropriate age/developmental level. Think about it, parents. Don’t you like your job more and perform better when you have a boss who lets you know what is most important and treats you well along the way? How high up there on the priority list are trust and respect at work? Children work the same way. They listen more often, behave better, and respond to directives more of the time when they feel good about the relationship with you. Try something new the next time you are frustrated with your son or daughter. Instead of yelling or hitting him to “correct” the behavior, pull him aside and get down to his level. Remind him that you love him and ask him if he can show “mommy” or “daddy” that he can be a good listener. Tell him calmly but firmly that you need him to stop or there is a consequence coming (“Timeouts” work really well for younger children). Finally, emphasize the type of behavior you are expecting from your son or daughter (e.g., use an inside voice, sit down and do your homework, or play nicely with your sister). I know that using this system will decrease tension at home and improve the relationships with your children. Although hitting or other physical punishments may work in the short term to correct behavior and feel like quick fix this will only create additional challenges in the future for you and your children. Challenge yourself to create healthy relationships with your children.