Discipline is an important part of parenting. It's a tool for shaping our children's behavior to acceptable standards so that they know how to behave later on in life. However, parents who choose to physically discipline their children may be conditioning them to be violent towards future partners according to a new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
The researchers lay out in the article that they were careful to remove contributing factors such as gender, ethnicity, and parental education in order to get the clearest picture possible of a link between childhood corporal punishment and violent behavior in relationships later on. They also controlled for those who had suffered abuse as children—those they identified as being left with bruises or requiring medical attention at the time of the abuse.
"Kids learn how to behave towards other people by following the examples their parents set for them," said Cindy Gellner, MD, a pediatrician with University of Utah Health. "Children who are repeatedly spanked learn that aggression is a normal way to react in a stressful situation and so they lash out at those they love when they are older."
This research is just the latest to question the efficacy of corporal punishment on children and its long term effects. Previous studies have looked at if these sorts of punishments could lead to aggressive behavior or other problems later on. "Children who are spanked or had other corporal punishments could grow up to be more likely to have mental health issues or have substance use disorders," said Gellner.
So, what is a parent to do? Gellner said some of the best discipline isn't even about discipline at all. Instead, it's about focusing on your child's good behaviors and encouraging them to repeat them. "Catch them when they are good and praise them when they do right," she said.
When problem behaviors do arise, punishments like time outs, loss of privileges, or having to face natural consequences can be very effective. It's also okay to reach out for help finding alternate ways to discipline your child if their behavior isn't changing. "Some children absolutely can be more difficult to discipline than others," said Gellner. "If your child seems overly defiant, then your pediatrician can help by referring you and your child to a therapist or other mental health provider who can help determine the underlying cause of the behavior and help with management."