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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Disciplining a Child

Q. I have some questions on discipline. Does spanking help with the learning process? When is spanking child abuse? Should parents ignore bad behavior, and reward good behavior? Do timeouts work well? How would a parent know when a timeout is better than a spanking? Do some children need a spanking occasionally?

A. Your very important questions would take a small book to answer thoroughly, and I am no child psychiatrist! That said, I can tell you that the whole issue of spanking remains somewhat controversial, even among physicians and other health care providers.

A recent statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics probably sums up the consensus among most experts: "When advising families about discipline strategies, pediatricians should use a comprehensive approach that includes consideration of the parent-child relationship, reinforcement of desired behaviors, and consequences for negative behaviors. Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior." (from Guidance for effective discipline. American Academy of Pediatrics. Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. Pediatrics. 1998 Apr;101(4 Pt 1):723-8).

On the other hand, in one survey of 114 members of the Ambulatory Pediatric Association's Special Interest Group on Child Abuse and Neglect, 39% thought spanking was appropriate sometimes. The context and mode of spanking affected the acceptance of spanking (Fargason et al, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1996 Oct;150(10):1049-53). Except for very minor cases of attention-getting, any destructive, aggressive, or harmful behavior on the part of children should not simply be ignored.

But, my personal view is that in the vast majority of cases, a child's misbehavior is best handled by behavioral management techniques (such as a timeout sitting in a corner) and by positive reinforcement of good behaviors. Perhaps there are a few isolated instances when a light slap on the wrist might be appropriate--but I can't really think of any. And when spanking becomes frequent, rough, or done in order to relieve the frustration of the parent, I would certainly classify it as a form of abuse.

For a more thorough discussion of child-rearing from a wise and humane practitioner, you may want to see Dr. T. Berry Brazelton's book, "Touchpoints, Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development" (1994).

June 2002

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