apparent for some time, Gershoff says. “A child doesn’t get spanked and then run out
and rob a store,” she says. “There are indirect changes in how the child thinks about
things and feels about things.”
As in many areas of science, some researchers disagree about the validity of
the studies on physical punishment. Robert Larzelere, PhD, an Oklahoma State
University professor who studies parental discipline, was a member of the APA task
force who issued his own minority report because he disagreed with the scientific
basis of the task force recommendations. While he agrees that parents should reduce
their use of physical punishment, he says most of the cited studies are correlational
and don’t show a causal link between physical punishment and long-term negative
effects for children.
“The studies do not discriminate well between non-abusive and overly severe
types of corporal punishment,” Larzelere says. “You get worse outcomes from
corporal punishment than from alternative disciplinary techniques only when it is
used more severely or as the primary discipline tactic.”
In a meta-analysis of 26 studies, Larzelere and a colleague found that an approach
they described as “conditional spanking” led to greater reductions in child defiance
or anti-social behavior than 10 of 13 alternative discipline techniques, including
reasoning, removal of privileges and time out (Clinical Child and Family Psychology
Review, 2005). Larzelere defines conditional spanking as a disciplinary technique
for 2- to 6-year-old children in which parents use two open-handed swats on the
buttocks only after the child has defied milder discipline such as time out.
Gershoff says all of the studies on physical punishment have some shortcomings.
“Unfortunately, all research on parent discipline is going to be correlational because
we can’t randomly assign kids to parents for an experiment. But I don’t think we have
to disregard all research that has been done,” she says. “I can just about count on one
hand the studies that have found anything positive about physical punishment and
hundreds that have been negative.”
Teaching new skills
If parents aren’t supposed to hit their kids, what nonviolent techniques can help with
discipline? The Parent Management Training program headed by Kazdin at Yale is
grounded in research on applied behavioral analysis. The program teaches parents to
use positive reinforcement and effusive praise to reward children for good behavior.
Kazdin also uses a technique that may sound like insanity to most parents: Telling
toddlers to practice throwing a tantrum. Parents ask their children to have a pretend
tantrum without one undesirable element, such as hitting or kicking. Gradually, as
children practice controlling tantrums when they aren’t angry, their real tantrums
lessen, Kazdin says.
Remaining calm during a child’s tantrums is the best approach, coupled with
time outs when needed and a consistent discipline plan that rewards good behavior,
Graham-Bermann says. APA offers the Adults & Children Together Against Violence
program, which provides parenting skills classes through a nationwide research-based
program called Parents Raising Safe Kids. The course teaches parents how to avoid
violence through anger management, positive child discipline and conflict resolution.
(For more information on ACT, see the November Monitor.)
Parents should talk with their children about appropriate means of resolving
conflicts, Gershoff says. Building a trusting relationship can help children believe that
discipline isn’t arbitrary or done out of anger.
“Part of the problem is good discipline isn’t quick or easy,” she says. “Even the best
of us parents don’t always have that kind of patience.” n
Brendan L. Smith is a writer in Washington, D.C.