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It’s science: spanking makes a child’s behavior worse in the long run

Spanking is a polarizing topic for parents. Some were raised with it themselves and see it as one ingredient in their family recipe for child-rearing, while others consider it poison for a child’s self-esteem and development.

As the debate continues, a new study offers some evidence that might have parents thinking more about alternatives to spanking. The science shows spanking can actually make a child's behavior worse, even 10 years later.

Previous studies have linked physical punishments, including spanking, with negative outcomes for kids within a year of the discipline, but the most recent research on the subject, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, found this kind of punishment in the earliest years of a child’s life is negatively impacting temperament and behavior a decade later.

“It is very important that parents refrain from physical punishment as it can have long-lasting impacts. If we want to nurture positive behaviors, all parents should teach a child how to regulate their behaviors early,” says Gustavo Carlo, one of the study’s authors.

So what can parents do to correct a child’s negative behavior and teach them to self-regulate? Here are some alternatives to consider.

Be consistent and set limits

According to Deerwester, author of The Entitlement Free Child, parents seeking spanking alternatives should be consident, set limits, and allow logical and natural consequences instead of stepping in with a spank (like if you throw your food, you’re not getting spanked but mealtime is over).

“The alternative to spanking is not permissiveness, making excuses for misbehavior or laissez faire parenting. The alternative to spanking is teaching,” Deerwester writes.

“Teaching is not punishing, shaming or hurting. Through teaching, children learn to manage their own feelings, to acquire patience, to delay gratification, to consider long-term outcomes, to consider someone else's needs and feelings, to compromise, and to find constructive solutions to problems through age-appropriate challenges like protesting bedtimes, mealtimes and everyday rules. Children continually test parents' sincerity and consistency day after day, year after year.”

Teach control

At The Yale Parenting Centre, Dr. Alan Kazdin, a psychology professor and director of the Center and Child Conduct Clinic, teaches parents to use positive reinforcement and effusive praise to reward children for good behavior, rather than physically punishing bad behavior. Part of this involves teaching children to control their own behavior, even when they are angry.

Under Kazdin’s direction, a parent wouldn’t spank a child who hit them during a tantrum, but might ask the child to pretend to to throw tantrums and practice doing so without hitting anyone. As the kids practice controlling their tantrums when they aren’t angry, real tantrums become less intense and parents don’t need to resort to spanking.

Take a break

Pretend tantrums are one thing, but real ones are another. They can be frustrating. According to The Centre for Parenting Education, parents seeking alternative to spanking should find ways to control their own anger when a child is behaving in an undesirable, frustrating fashion.

Parents should try not to discipline out of anger, and take a minute to think about some age appropriate consequences. As Karen Deerwester, the owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting, notes, “Parent emotions are always gasoline on the fire.”

Set a goal

While spanking may stop an unwanted behavior temporarily, in the moment, studies have found hitting kids is ineffective in the long-run, and teaches them to hit others. In 2014 researchers at York University published a paper on safe and effective alternatives to spanking.

According to the study’s authors, “Setting long-term parenting goals is an important first step to effective discipline,” so that’s where parents should start if they’re trying to take spanking out of their repertoire.“In setting long-term goals, it is important for parents to recognize that they set a standard for appropriate behavior as role models to their children,” the study notes.

A long term parenting goal may include teaching your child appropriate behaviors without modeling violence as being acceptable within any relationship

The science of spanking is pretty clear, but with patience and awareness of our own anger, parents can harness alternatives that are less damaging to a child’s development.

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