Parenting: The line between punishment and abuse
By Melanie Barwick, PhD., C.Psych. CBC News, June 20, 2008

Section 43 of Canada's Criminal Code allows parents, teachers and caregivers to use reasonable force to discipline a child and correct their behaviour (Senators Approve Anti-Spanking Bill, CBCNews, Thursday, June 19, 2008). It gives adults the right to physically discipline children between the ages of two and 12.

The Code calls to mind several questions:

  • How were these age parameters chosen?
  • Is there something about being younger than two or older than 12 that suggests greater harm from physical punishment will befall these children as compared to children three to 11?
  • Where do we draw the line in disciplining our children and what right does the government have to legislate parenting or caregiving style?
  • How do you balance a parent's right to parent and a kid's right not to be abused?
The purpose of the bill, according to Liberal Senator Cιline Hervieux-Payette, who introduced it, is "to send a signal, so that people who use violence in a repeated way will no longer feel protected … It is not to arrest everyone who gives their child a tap on the arm." The bill was amended to allow parents and caregivers to use force in very specific situations — such as when a caregiver wants to immediately stop a child from doing something dangerous that could cause serious harm, presumably to him or herself or to others.

In the same vein, a Quebec court recently ruled that a father didn't have the right to punish his 12-year-old daughter by barring her from a school trip after he grounded her for risky behaviour — posting pictures of herself on an internet dating service.

Two important characteristics set these stories apart.

The first is that while one situation focuses on physical punishment, also known as corporal punishment, the other deals with non-physical discipline. Corporal punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purposes of correction or control of the child's behaviour.

The line between acceptable corporal punishment and dangerous physical abuse is usually drawn in the sand on a blustery day; there are no guidelines. Physical abuse is the infliction of physical injury through punching, kicking, beating, biting, burning, shaking or otherwise harming a child.

Whether a parent or caregiver did not intend to cause harm doesn't make it more acceptable. In the end, it's about one person asserting power over another and there's nothing healthy in that dynamic.

The second important consideration is the difference between children behaving badly and those whose behaviour places them at risk or in harm's way. Children who act impulsively or who take risks are often the focus of parental discipline.

Let's tackle physical punishment first and ask, is hitting detrimental to children? The comments posted by a great many readers in reference to the anti-spanking bill suggest that physical punishment has been the personal experience of many adults during their own childhood. The common sentiment is that it can't be so bad if they turned out OK.

Recognizing that our beliefs and attitudes shape our behaviour in whatever we do, including parenting and discipline, it is not surprising that this practice continues to be used.

I wonder if the same people who hold this view of physical punishment also place importance on the value of research evidence as it relates to health care, for instance.

Those battling illness would like to receive medical care that is based on the best scientific evidence, as is our right. So why shouldn't parenting practices be subject to the same evidence-based criteria? What does the research say about the effectiveness and outcomes of physical punishment of children?

Should Canada step in to adopt policies or laws that prohibit parents from using corporal punishment as a means of discipline, as have Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden? Or should we align ourselves with the United States, where 94% of parents report spanking their children by the time they are three or four years of age?

This is a complex issue that has been examined in different cultures, genders, and family situations. Most of the research is not designed to address issues of causality — whether physical punishment causes certain outcomes. Rather, it looks at explaining how physical punishment is associated or linked with children's outcomes.

Much of the research on parents' use of corporal punishment has found it to be associated with negative outcomes. Immediate compliance is a notable exception, however. We know from laboratory research on learning that corporal punishment is indeed effective in getting people to be compliant in the short term; it is effective at stopping bad behaviour immediately.

But is this our only goal?

While immediate compliance is often what we're after when we discipline, parents need to promote children's ability to control their behaviour using internal controls because these are skills that are more important to long-term socialization.

We want children to behave well not because they don't want to get hit, an external motivator, but because they have internalized socially appropriate ways of behaving. Knowing what the right way to behave is on the inside is enhanced by parental discipline strategies that use minimal parental power, promote choice and autonomy, and provide explanations for desirable behaviours.

Several research reviews have concluded that corporal punishment is associated with increases in children's aggressive behaviour. Parents may be effectively stopping misbehaviour but they are also modeling aggression.

Corporal punishment has also been linked to criminal and antisocial behaviours, likely because corporal punishment does not facilitate children's internalization of morals and values. There is also research on the negative effects of corporal punishment on parent-child relationships, which can evoke feelings of fear, anxiety and anger in children.

Harsh punishment has been linked to depression and distress in adolescence, and coercive parenting techniques have been associated with increases in feelings of humiliation and helplessness. The upshot seems to be that physical punishment may stop bad behaviour in its tracks but it will do nothing to ensure healthy child development, positive parent-child relationships, or healthy social skills for success in life.

What about risk-taking behaviour? What are our rights to discipline when children act in ways that attract harm or danger? Slapping a child's hand away from a burning flame, pulling a child from oncoming traffic, or using non-physical discipline when children place themselves in harm's way — say by posting pictures on the web — are all behaviours that come instinctively to most parents. They are essentially behaviours driven by our protective instincts. When it comes to understanding children's behaviour, it is helpful to know something about how brain development plays a role in how kids behave.

These are developing children we are talking about. We should not automatically attribute their misbehaviour as intentional for it may at times be related to impulsivity, lack of understanding, or immaturity in how kids think about the world (cognitive immaturity). Sometimes, it's a case of "their brain made them do it."

Case in point: some researchers are looking at how the brain may account for the risky behaviours and poor decisions that plague adolescence. According to AboutKidsHealth, if we are to understand the problems of teenage behaviour, it is important to look at development over a long period of time instead of examining "snapshots" of teenage decision-making.

When we take this developmental view, we see that behaviour does not change in a straight line or linear manner from childhood through to adulthood. The peak of inappropriate and emotional behaviour during adolescence is described as risky and impulsive, often the types of behaviours that get kids into trouble with their parents. Impulsivity, or lack of cognitive control, is not the same thing as risk-taking; they are controlled by two separate regions in the brain. More importantly, each region matures according to a different timetable.

AboutKidsHealth goes on to say that risky behaviour does not improve consistently and evenly from childhood through adulthood, but rather peaks in the teenage years, revealing an issue that is unique to adolescence. In some cases, teenagers make significantly poorer decisions than children half their age.

What accounts for this? Well, a part of the brain called the limbic system for one thing. Researchers have shown that risk-taking is linked to this deep part of the brain, which is involved with judging incentives and emotional information. Brain imaging shows that risk-taking and processing emotional information intensifies activity in the limbic system — this part of the brain "lights up" on MRI screening when it gets activated, and this intensification is exaggerated during the teen years.

This means that when a risky choice has a strong emotional incentive, such as winning the admiration of peers, the limbic system is strongly activated by the emotional heft of the situation. The emotional, incentive-driven limbic system wins over the immature prefrontal control system — and a risky choice is made.

And so, it isn't always about intentionally being disobedient. Admittedly, the brain is not the only cause of misbehaviour, but as Ross Hetherington, director of AboutKidsHealth explains, "understanding the neurobiological basis of this disconnection between knowing what is right and doing what is wrong should help parents be patient with the foibles of the typical teenager."

Perhaps it is a simplistic view but, in the end, hitting children to control their behaviour is just not a good thing when you consider the science, and it may very soon be an unwise choice from a legal standpoint.

Famed psychologist B.F. Skinner clearly demonstrated the power both positive and negative reinforcement have to shape behaviour. However, we have more positive and healthy ways to promote prosocial and compliant behaviour in human beings, children and adults alike. Learning to parent positively in an age-appropriate manner may go a long way to preventing the escalation of conflict and misbehaviour that elicits physical punishment.

Make no mistake; physical punishment may very well communicate "stop this immediately" but it also communicates "I am bigger and stronger than you, which means I have power over you and can hurt you if you do not do or act as I say."

We have policies in place that most people support to guard against bullying in school, in the workplace (because adults don't like being hit, yelled at, or belittled, either), and we have laws that protect us from assault and violence. These laws are accepted as warranted and useful. We also have laws in place to guard animals from abusive behaviour.

It is only fitting then that we provide our children the same rights and pay them the same respect we do the household dog and cat.


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