Discipline means to teach or train – it’s a positive way to teach children our family and societal values, how to behave, right from wrong. It’s a process, just like other forms of teaching and learning; it takes time, patience, creativity, and repetition. Children can’t behave beyond their developmental level; they are impulsive; they don’t always think before they act; they make mistakes; and they encounter many unfamiliar situations every day. They need us to teach them about the world; to model how to act; and to help them learn from their mistakes.
In everyday terms, punishment means to inflict something on a child after they’ve “misbehaved” or made a mistake. Punishment can take the form of shame, hitting (spanking), social isolation (timeout), and other negative actions against the child, in the hope that the child won’t repeat the behavior, or will do as we demand.
What have we learned from scientific research, about physical forms of punishment like spanking?
First and most importantly, hitting damages the parent-child relationship by eroding trust and love. The one person the child must rely on and trust, hurts them.
Second, spanking damages children’s brains, sometimes permanently. Science has shown us that spanking can and does change brain structure and function (how the brain works). Because the brain continues to develop throughout childhood and beyond, when it gets damaged, new brain processes don’t develop properly, making it harder and harder for the child to learn appropriate behavior, to make good choices, even to be happy.
Third, because children learn by copying our actions, when we hit our children, we’re modeling that hitting is OK. When children learn that hitting is a tool to get what they want, they use hitting at preschool and school, leading to all kinds of difficulties.
Fourth, spanking doesn’t teach children to do the right thing, to obey us, or to make good choices. Research has found that it encourages dishonesty – children often will sneak and/or lie to repeat the punished action. Children who are spanked are less likely to make moral choices.
Fifth, spanking makes children feel like a bad person, and this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – “I’m bad so I might as well act bad.”
Children who are spanked may develop emotional and health problems that create difficulties in school and throughout their lives. We know this from the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (read more at www.stopspanking.org).
This community cares about its children. We want what is best for them, and we want to be the most effective parents we can be.
There are many local resources to help: The Incredible Years parenting classes offered by both Pinon Project (564-1195), and Cortez Integrated Health Care (565-7946); our local libraries have dozens of parenting books; local early childhood and health care professionals know child development and what is reasonable to expect at different ages.
There are digital resources for those who want to explore new ideas on their own first: www.ahaparenting.com by Laura Markham and www.endhittingusa.org both have activities, suggestions, advice about practical matters, and offer supportive guidance to help us learn new ways to parent more peacefully and effectively.
We hope to continue the conversation on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Montelores.Early.Childhood.Council), and invite you to send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Dodd is MECC’s chief knowledge officer.