'Keep that rod away': Dangers of corporal punishment on kids

A recent study published in The Lancet journal has further cemented a fact that we all know, but sometimes find hard to practise - that physically punishing children to enforce discipline is detrimental to their behaviour in the long run.

Researchers from the University College London (UCL) and an international team of experts looked at 69 studies from the United States, Japan, Turkey, China, Canada, Columbia, Greece, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, which involved punishments such as spanking.

Intimidation, either physical or verbal, does more harm to children than good
Intimidation, either physical or verbal, does more harm to children than good

The researchers found compelling evidence to prove that physical punishment made children’s behaviour worse over a period of time. Worldwide, 63 per cent of children between the ages of 2 and 4 worldwide were regularly subjected to physical punishment.

Physical disciplining is increasingly being viewed as a harmful and illegal method and a violation of child rights. 62 countries have banned corporal punishment. In India, physical punishment is illegal in schools and can invite a fine and/or jail time. However, there is no such law governing physical punishment at home and most children are exposed to some form of corporal punishment.

How corporal punishment hurts

A UNICEF report revealed that small children – those in the age group of 0-6, in India, suffer from various forms of punishment including spanking, being denied food, getting shouted at, shamed or other forms of physical abuse. Even newborns were subjected to certain forms of punishment.

However, as studies have shown, spanking has no positive consequences and may lead to mental health problems and aggressive behaviours in children.

Here is how corporal punishment harms:

  • The Lancet study shows that physical punishment intensifies the child’s problems over time

  • There is a dose-response relationship, which means that physical punishment increases in frequency and severity over time.

  • Studies have proven that physical punishment rises the chances of children indulging in violent behaviour. Persistent physical aggression would mean that children are unable to differentiate between right and wrong and thus could resort to violence if something does not go their way.

  • Spanking can hamper a child’s cognitive development, including their ability to make decisions, their memory and their self-control. When children are exposed to physical violence, their emotions take over their ability to think.

  • The negative impact of spanking may not be obvious immediately but can manifest over time.

Discipline with love and patience

While each child may respond differently to punishments, and the severity of the disciplining technique depends on the action, it may be worthwhile to follow these methods of disciplining, to avoid spanking your child:

Distraction: You need to understand that during the first year, what the baby needs the most is love. Toddlers and mess go hand in hand. In most cases, they are too young to understand if they have done something wrong. Hence, the best way to handle really small children is by distracting them.
For example, if the child is throwing a tantrum because he or she wants something, take the child out, point out to a flower, or any other object outside, play with the child, and shift the child’s attention to something else.

Enforce timeouts: As the child grows old enough to understand consequences, you can start enforcing timeouts. Get the child to sit in a safe room or area, away from others and from things he or she likes. This will give the child time to cool off and think over what they did. Start with a minute or two for toddlers, and increase the time frame as they grow older.

Explain the consequences: By talking to the child, before meting out any punishment, you may be able to make them understand that every action they do has a consequence. So, if they don’t keep their toys away after playing, they may get lost or someone may trip over them. Similarly, by not studying or doing their homework on time, they would be behind others at school.

Let them learn: With older children, it sometimes helps to allow them to learn the consequences of their behaviour naturally, provided they are out of danger. This is better than shielding them always as this will instil a sense of responsibility and accountability in them.

Take away screen time and other privileges: By taking away what the child likes to do (preferably not the healthy pass times) such as watching TV, going out with friends, or playing video games, the child will realise that they will have to forego their favourite things if they misbehave.

Tantrum approach: Sterling Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry, Alan Kazdin tried a rather radical method of getting kids to calm down in the Parent Management Training program at Yale. Here, toddlers are told to practise having a pretend tantrum without any undesirable element. As they continue throwing a tantrum, they gradually learn to control their own during undesirable times, thereby reducing the intensity when they have a real meltdown.

Calm down: Studies reveal that when you are angry, you do not use the thinking part of your brain (cortex), but rather the limbic centre, which is the emotional part of the brain, considered to be more primitive than the cortex.

Hence, before rushing to punish the child, take a few deep breaths and calm down. This helps us to focus better, and not let our anger cloud our judgement as parents or caregivers. This will also allow us to understand why the child has behaved in a certain way.

Listen to your child: We are often too busy to listen to our children. However, you need to realise that a child’s behaviour could be their way of grabbing your attention and getting you to listen to them. If the child knows that you will listen to what they have to say, without them resorting to something unpleasant, they may be less likely to indulge in aggressive behaviour to grab your attention.

Keep them busy: Children sometimes display aggressive behaviour or are excessively mischievous because they have too much free time or are bored. By keeping children engaged in various activities, they will not have the time or energy to indulge in wrong behaviour.

Reward good behaviour: Just as you would punish the child for wrong behaviour, it is equally, if not more, important to reward good behaviour. That would allow the child to understand that it is better for them to behave well, and also that you do pay attention to them, and not just when they do something wrong.

Smiling Beautiful Family of Four Play Fetch flying disc with Happy Golden Retriever Dog on the Backyard Lawn. Idyllic Family Has Fun with Loyal Pedigree Dog Outdoors in Summer House Backyard
Smiling Beautiful Family of Four Play Fetch flying disc with Happy Golden Retriever Dog on the Backyard Lawn. Idyllic Family Has Fun with Loyal Pedigree Dog Outdoors in Summer House Backyard

Give the child a break: It is natural to get tired of doing the same thing every day. So, give one day in the week when the child can take a break from studies and household chores, and do what he or she likes. Use that day to spend quality family time and go out, or take part in some activity together. This will motivate the child to do her work the rest of the days.

Be a role model: Children learn from their parents, and you can’t expect your child to become the perfect kid if you are not a good role model. For example, many parents tend to lie in front of their kids, and then expect them not to lie. But children follow by example, and if you are not setting a good one, your kids won’t either.

Give yourself a break: We can’t be model parents all the time, so stop giving yourself (and your children) a hard time by expecting everything to be perfect. Take time out for yourself and indulge in activities that make you happy. If you can steal some time away from your children, do so by enlisting help, if they are small or assigning responsibilities to your children so that you get more time for yourselves. Remember, a happier, healthier you means a happier, calmer child.