Another Simple Thing: Spare the Rod

“Disciplining your children is NOT easy! The most challenging part of parenting is understanding your child’s developmental stages—and then figuring out the most loving, consistent, and developmentally-appropriate way to discipline them without crossing the line into physical punishment. It’s my role as a pediatric professional to help parents along this journey, so that both children and parents can be spared the trauma of physical abuse.”
– Gabrielle, Petersen (MSN, CPNP), Medical Examiner, Children’s Center

Not much is harder for parents, teachers, coaches, and anyone who supervises children than disciplining them. It’s a tricky, touchy subject. But if we’re serious about building a better world for kids, we need to examine how we help them manage their behavior.

Most Americans believe that physical punishment is acceptable—despite compelling evidence to the contrary. Studies reveal that physical punishment is harmful to children physically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially. Additionally, when parents are angry, they can fail to understand their own strength and level of arousal—which makes it easier for physical punishment to enter the realm of physical abuse.

Researchers are surfacing strong links between physical punishment (such as spanking) and increased childhood aggression, including acting out in school and poor academic performance. Children who are hit often and/or severely are more likely to be aggressive (both as children and adults) and are at greater risk for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse; later relationships with their parents tend to be more distant.

While parents who employ physical punishment may sometimes get the immediate results they desire (specifically, compliant children), such practices are not only ineffective, but counter-productive over the long haul. According to experts, physical punishment can lead to:

  • Increased antisocial behavior and acceptance of violent behavior
  • Higher levels of aggression—toward parents, siblings, peers, and eventual spouses
  • Compromised family relationships
  • Teen delinquency
  • Depression, anxiety, hopelessness and other mental health issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Spousal assault

Significantly, no recent studies of physical punishment have validated a positive long-term effect. As a result, more than 30 countries have banned the practice, even in the home.

The bottom line: by modeling aggression, physical punishment “tells” children that hurting others is an acceptable way to deal with problems. Given that children learn so much by the example set by adults, it’s fair for adults to ask themselves: Is this the example we want to set?

Recognizing that discipline is never easy, how can parents take physical punishment out of their repertoire for dealing with misbehavior?

The Gundersen Center for Effective Discipline proposes multiple strategies to help children change behavior. Positive discipline empowers children by providing long-term social and emotional skills that can be utilized throughout their lives. So parents should develop a “tool belt” that includes a variety of instructive techniques.

As a first step, experts suggest that parents shift their mindset from “punishment” to “discipline.” The root of discipline is “disciple”—which implies an intent to demonstrate, mentor, and teach. By nature, it’s instructive. On the other hand, “punishment” implies pain. It’s a consequence, often rooted in retribution (rather than thoughtful deliberation). It evokes fear rather than desire.

For parents, awareness of their child’s temperament and developmental stage is one of the keys to understanding how to best discipline them. If you want to help your children become more responsible and caring through adolescence and into adulthood, there are effective ways to respond to misbehavior without resorting to physical punishment. Here are ten principles to keep in mind:

  • Treat children the way you would like to be treated.
  • Understand that kids have feelings—so be empathetic.
  • Let the little things go; ignoring attention-seeking misbehavior can be more effective than punishing it.
  • Give both your child and yourself a “time out” during difficult interactions; look for “win-win” solutions.
  • When arguments get loud, lower your voice.
  • Give your children time to process things.
  • Be realistic. Consequences should fit the specific misbehavior.
  • Set reasonable boundaries and expectations for behavior (especially in public)—and follow through on consequences when children misbehave; don’t be afraid to leave a store or restaurant, or skip an important event if necessary. Kids learn quickly that you mean what you say.
  • Don’t hesitate to negotiate, especially with older children; that helps them understand limits and encourages self-control.
  • Look for opportunities to praise—and reward positive behavior.

Obviously, effective discipline requires extraordinary patience—and even the best parents sometimes fall short. That’s OK. Don’t be afraid to ask for help—from other parents, from a health care provider, or from a counselor. And when the going gets tough, take a break. It really does take a community to raise a child. When facing speed bumps around discipline, remember to breathe—help and support are available!


The American Psychological Association (APA) has created the ACT/Parents Raising Safe Kids program, intended to develop parenting skills that prevent violence in children’s lives. The program helps parents recognize and control their own anger, and their children’s anger, while introducing strategies for both positive discipline and resolving conflict without resorting to violence.

The Gundersen Center for Effective Discipline offers a wide variety of resources for creating safe, supportive, child-parent relationships.

American Academy of Pediatrics. Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics 1998; 101; 723-728.

American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC). Position Statement on Corporal Punishment of Children. July 2016.

National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP). Position Statement on Corporal Punishment. Journal Pediatric Health Care. (2006). 20. 43A-44A.

Note: This is the ninth in a series of simple things we can do to build a better world for kids. These reflections and others are being compiled into a book.

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