Teaching parents alternatives to corporal punishment

It’s important to teach parents alternatives to spanking.

The parenting program through Michigan State University Extension, Nurturing Parenting, teaches alternatives to corporal punishment and does not advocate for spanking as a form of discipline. We define corporal punishment as spanking by a parent or other caregiver. Corporal punishment most often comes in the form of spanking (hitting) the hands and buttocks, but can include other deliberate acts of inflicting pain to get a desired response. These other forms of corporal punishment include pinching, pulling hair, ear pulling, kneeling, mouth soaping, standing in uncomfortable positions, bed without supper and other food punishments among others.

This approach to parenting can often cause dilemmas for the educator when it is challenged by parents in the group.  Many years ago in my practice, after being challenged dozens of times and not having the wisdom or experience to effectively debate it, I found that I had to be well prepared and able to understand it from the opposing perspective in order to challenge the perspective without coming across as judgmental. It can be tricky and complex, especially when parents advocate for spanking within a cultural, historical or religious context. 

One of the ways I deal with the complexity of the situation is by trying to get parents to understand the reasons why we advocate for non-corporal forms of discipline of children. This way, they gain their own insights and draw their own conclusions about the subject. To accomplish this, I’ve learned that it’s important to never tell anyone that spanking is violent, even if I truly believe that it is. I’ve learned over 15 years of practice that this comes across as judgmental and can alienate those in your group. Instead, I try to explain the research behind spanking and the risks it poses to a child’s emotional wellbeing and development. It’s important to explain this research in language and terms that parents can understand.

I have found that an effective way to explain research findings is to use concrete, less controversial examples of things we have learned from research that have improved health, safety and well-being. One example I use is putting babies to sleep on their backs and how this used to be an acceptable parenting practice, but now we would never do it because we found that it is one of the factors that contributes to infant death from suffocation. I also use the example of smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol during pregnancy. At one time, we would see pregnant women on television smoking and drinking, but now we would never tell a pregnant woman that  it’s okay to smoke or drink because of the irreversible damage it can cause to an unborn baby. I tell them that all these things we found through research and often times when people “know better, they do better.”

Another approach I use to help parents gain their own insights about spanking is to explain to them that spanking usually comes after they have lost their cool and are acting out of anger and frustration.  I teach them strategies and techniques to handle their own emotions before taking them out on their children. I also tell them that spanking is learned and that parents have picked up the practice because it was most likely modeled by adults when they were growing up.

The most important aspect of the lesson on corporal punishment is to give parents alternatives to spanking that they may be able to incorporate into their repertoire of parenting behaviors. These include using time-outs, grounding for adolescents and tweens, and loss off privileges or favorite objects, such as toys. Not everyone comes around to change their thinking, but they are certainly equipped with more information and knowledge after attending the class.

For more information on parenting, discipline or other similar topics, visit MSU Extension.

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