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Spare the Rod

Non-physical ways of disciplining children

Dr Derrick Aarons

Sunday, May 18, 2014    

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CHILD Month brings into focus the issue of parenting and some of the consequences of unplanned pregnancies in Jamaica.

A survey by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Jamaica from 2005-2012 confirmed that there is rampant physical and emotional abuse of our children all across our nation.

The research found that over 84 per cent of children between ages two and 14 years had received some form of violent discipline, including psychological aggression and physical punishment. While only 27 per cent of mothers or caretakers thought their children needed to be physically punished, nevertheless 68 per cent of those children were subjected to physical punishment.

PHYSICAL PUNISHMENT AND VERBAL ABUSE

Unfortunately corporal punishment of children is deeply entrenched in our culture, perhaps as a consequence of the pervasive whipping of slaves in our history, and the subsequent acceptance of 'beating' as a means of discipline, even today.

One study showed that 30 per cent of our children were beaten with belts, sticks, brooms, and iron pipes. Many are neglected, left unattended for prolonged periods of time, told expletives, called demeaning names, and subjected to other verbal and emotional abuse. Regrettably, because so many parents were themselves subjected to similar abuse while growing up, they believe that such actions are a natural part of child-rearing.

Growing boys with an abundance of testosterone may be brutalised because "him can't hear so him must feel". One study found that babies were 'boxed' in the face and told not to cry, two-year-old boys were scolded using a derogatory term for the female sex organ, and a 16-month-old child was threatened to have its fingers broken for moving things in the house, despite the natural curiosity of children at that age to explore their environment.

TEACHING PROPER PARENTING

Appropriate parenting in our modern society with all its challenges is not an inborn ability, nor does it occur by instinct.

We, therefore, have to teach young people how to properly parent. In the UNICEF survey, a vast majority of parents and caretakers of children said they beat their children because they did not know any other form of discipline.

While it is true that many adults who were spanked as children may be well-adjusted and caring people today, research has shown that when compared with children who learned through non-physical forms of discipline, children who received physical punishment were more likely to become adults who were depressed, use alcohol, have more anger, whack their own children and spouses, and were more likely to engage in crime and violence.

Many paediatric associations recommend non-physical forms of discipline since they have fewer negative outcomes.

Outside of making children more aggressive, physical punishment may seriously harm the child, causing children to think it is okay to physically hurt someone they love or that inflicting pain on others is acceptable if you are frustrated or want to maintain control.

NON-PHYSICAL STRATEGIES THAT WORK

For babies, simply remove the temptation and redirect the child's attention to another activity.

For children ages two to five years, use the method called time out. This involves putting the misbehaving child on their own for a brief period of time. Children may be told to stand in a corner or sent to another room. It is intended to give an overexcited child time to calm down, but can also serve as a time for parents to separate feelings of anger toward the child and to develop a plan for discipline.

'Praise and rewards' involve providing spontaneous expressions of appreciation when children are behaving well, to reinforce good behaviour. Focusing on the good and ignoring bad behaviour will encourage appropriate action in the given situation. According to researcher B F Skinner, past behaviour that is reinforced with praise is likely to repeat in the same or similar situation.

Children who are ignored by their parents may turn to misbehaviour as a way of seeking attention, but parents should wait until the child calms down and speaks politely, then reward the more polite behaviour with their attention.

'Grounding', usually for pre-teens and teenagers, restricts their movements, allowing them only to attend school. Sometimes it is combined with the withdrawal of computer, video game, telephone or TV privileges.

We need to therefore embark on an educational campaign to teach parents non-physical ways of discipline, to effect better outcomes for Jamaica's children.

Derrick Aarons MD, PhD is a consultant bioethicist/family physician, a specialist in ethical issues in medicine, the life sciences and research, and is a member of the Executive Council of RedBioetica UNESCO.

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