This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on corporal punishment and public humiliation as child abuse. Here is Part 1, which covers how attempting to discipline children through beatings and shaming actually hurts child development. This part will cover alternatives to corporal punishment/public humiliation and talking about the psychology of how humans learn (Example: Learning from watching other people). Knowing a little psychology can help you figure out ways to discipline children that will assist you in teaching the lessons that children need to learn in order to thrive.
Alternative #1: Be Curious
Be genuinely curious. Pay attention to your child’s body language. If your child is old enough to talk and communicate their feelings, ask them what is bothering them without judgments or making assumptions about why they did whatever they did. Try to remember how many times you felt unheard as a kid. What would it have felt like if your parents asked you what was going on instead of automatically hitting you, etc.? If this sounds like a lot to you, something to think about: your child already does this with you. Children learn their parent’s body language, the tones in their voice, etc. as part of your relationship with them. They are expected to learn your habits and likes/dislikes and act accordingly. That can be a very one-sided relationship if parents don’t take the time to learn their children for who they are as individuals. Without assumptions. Without skepticism. But with a genuine sense of discovery. The parent-child relationship is a 2-way street relationship like any other. As I said in the Part 1, the parent-child relationship is the first relationship that a child learns to build and grow. Set the tone. Get to know your child as an individual, as a human being separate from your identity. I’ve found in my clinical work that genuine curiosity and respect goes a long way in getting most people to open up – from small children to elders. Fakeness and judgment are clocked a mile away.
Alternative #2: Positive & Negative Reinforcement
Okay so now I’m gonna bring some psychological theory into this. Therapists and researchers have studied the human brain and how people learn new information for DECADES. And what’s the point of having all of this research and clinical knowledge if no one ever uses it in real life? At least most people would agree that the whole point of disciplining children is to 1) stop them from doing 1 kind of behavior and 2) replace that behavior with something else. For example, your child came home after the street lights came on. 1)Coming home late is the behavior you want them to stop and the behavior you want them to replace that with is 2)coming home while it’s light outside. Got it? Cool. So again to recap: the purpose of disciplining children is to stop them from doing 1 thing and to replace it something else. That’s teaching and learning right there. You are disciplining your child to teach them that coming home late is not acceptable to you and you want them to learn a new behavior.
Now let’s talk about punishments vs reinforcements. A punishment is a tactic used to discourage/reduce behavior. Some action is taken (beatings/shaming/lecturing) or something is taken away (time out/grounding) as a form of discouragement. The logic here is that the child should start to put 2+2 together and associate the feeling of being punished with the unwanted behavior. And then be less likely to behave that way to avoid punishment. I’ll use an adult example: Your boss is unhappy with your time management so demands that you report every single thing you do in a work day in a time/effort log. Or your boss takes money out of your paycheck every time you make a mistake. How would you feel? How would you react? Why are children any different? Research has shown that punishments are not effective ways for humans to teach and learn new things. And to be real, we didn’t need researchers to tell us that. Like I said in Part 1, how many things were you punished for as a kid that you still do to this day or did for years after that punishment? Non-abusive punishments (like time outs, grounding, etc.) can be used as a very last resort, but most of the time, punishments are just not as effective in learning/changing behavior in the long run. Many adults will do anything to avoid punishment…except avoid breaking the stated rules in the first place. Adults lie and rebel to avoid punishment so why wouldn’t children? Also punishments are reactionary, meaning they’re like band-aids after the fact, and they’re often one-sided. Meaning the child’s perspective/reasons/intentions rarely ever crosses the adults’ minds. And like I showed in Part 1, abusive punishments like beatings and shaming have negative long-term effects on children. So again, not only do they not even work, but they also have a huge risk of harming your child.
Now, a reinforcement is a tactic used to encourage people to continue a desired behavior. Something is added (verbal praises, going out for ice cream, or letting them have a sleepover with their friends) or taken away (letting a child off the hook with chores for that week as a reward) to keep a good thing going. One reason reinforcements are more effective than punishments at changing behaviors is you end up giving the child another behavior to replace the unwanted one. Reinforcements don’t just focus on “stop doing that!” Reinforcements are more like “I’d prefer this. This shit right here is popping. Do this more. Good shit happens when you do this.” You are literally teaching the child a new behavior and because the new behavior was reinforced with something positive, the child (and adults) are more likely to continue doing that behavior. An adult example would be: You did an amazing job on an assignment so your boss takes you out to lunch or your boss lets you leave early for the day. How would you feel after that? Children, as humans and as adults in training, feel the same way.
Alternative # 3: Model Other Behaviors (Be the change you want to see)
In psychology, “modeling” means learning by observation instead of learning directly/firsthand. It’s basically teaching by publicly walking the walk and learning by watching other people. That whole “Do as I say, not as I do” has never worked because it directly goes against how the human brain works. People learn by watching. So why not children? Just like on-the-job training, much of learning new skills and behaviors is watching a more experienced person do it. Children learn how to behave by watching how you act in private and in public. Use this to your advantage. If you want to change your child’s behavior, show them that there other options, other ways to deal with every situation. Let’s get a little uncomfortable for a second: If your child has angry outbursts, where did they get that from? How is your ability to tolerate frustration? Do you yell and snap back at your children and/or other people in front of them? That’s you modeling behavior. They’ve learned that it is socially acceptable to yell at people when they are angry. Or if the influence is something or someone else, maybe you should consider thinking about how much contact your child should have with that influence and how to add other influences in the future. One strategy for changing their behavior is changing your behavior so they can see it. Walk the walk for them. It will be good for you and for them. And don’t get me wrong, having open discussions with children is incredibly important, but all the discussions in the world won’t mean a thing if they see you not taking your own advice in your personal life.
Alternative #4: Real life, natural, logical consequences
It’s better for children to learn the consequences of their actions while they are young and while their actions don’t have huge effects. For example, you keep catching your child sneaking to stay up past their bed time on a weeknight. You could punish them for this: you could yell, etc. (not likely to do much after a while) or you could inform them that they are still expected to get up early the next morning for school regardless. Model behavior: tell them that you are going to bed because you need private time and sleep for the next morning. Go to bed. See this as them experimenting with their limitations. They’re forming a hypothesis, making a prediction, and now they are going to see what happens. In this case, you really don’t have to punish them. Let natural consequences take their course. When they gotta wake up early after a couple late nights and realize they don’t have the energy to do much with their friends, they’re more likely to appreciate the purpose of sleep and your word as a parent.
As a child gets older, a parent can chill a little bit and start to rely on the steadily growing reasoning/judgment part of their brain (remember I said that part doesn’t completely finish growing until your mid-20s). Basically you can rely a little more on older children, and even more on teenagers, to make better judgment calls than you could when they were younger. Remember children are adults-in-training and you have been training the older child/teen for some years now. They know some stuff. They’re gonna make mistakes, but that’s why you’re still training them. How are they supposed to figure out adulthood if you don’t let them have a little more control? That’s where those natural consequences and contained mistakes come in. If you let your child make decisions for themselves while it’s still low risk and while you are still there to watch them, not only will they learn faster, but you will also feel like you can trust them in the future. Again, it’s important with this alternative to be able to calmly, but firmly call attention to the unacceptable behavior, talk to them about what you’ve done in similar situations or what you’re going to do (like go to bed on time in the example before), and letting them learn from their consequences. It’s better to learn the power of their decisions now when they can still run to you for guidance. No nagging. No judgments. No “I told you so”. Empathy works best when trying to teach a lesson. Think about what you, an adult, would want to hear if you made a mistake. You’d probably want empathy. Someone to vent to. Bet money that’s what a child/teen would want too. Listen to them and let the natural consequences teach its lesson. Again, better that they learn now.
I wanna say that trying new ways of disciplining children may not be easy at first. Just like it may be difficult for your children to learn new behaviors, it could be hard for you too. It’s okay to acknowledge that. You’re learning something new too and change can be hard. You are doing something that probably no one in your family has done before. It’s also important to understand that teaching/training your young children new patterns of behavior will take time and patience. Time, patience, and energy that is really limited to many of us because of our own personal traumas, larger traumas like racism and/or colonialism, dealing with poverty and/or financial stresses, etc. These things constantly occupy our minds on some level, draining our energy every day. Many of us wake up on empty on a daily basis. I feel that. But hitting/humiliation is a shortcut and a psychological easy way out for the parents that hurts the child in long-lasting ways. It might feel good in the short-term to yell at your child and you might even get a sense of satisfaction from beating/shaming them. But discipline isn’t supposed to be about the parents or their feelings. Remember from Part 1: beating a child in anger increases their risk for depression as young adults. Your short-term actions have long-term effects. If the focus of disciplining is you and your feelings/frustrations/stress, etc., that’s not discipline. That’s you taking out your feelings on your child.
I’ve been seeing a lot of y’all constantly buying books from people with a whole lot of opinions and not a drop of actual knowledge/peer-reviewed research and/or psychotherapy experience. It’s sad. These people are conning you and hurting your children in the name of God, freedom, etc. Be careful y’all. I definitely understand being distrustful of white professionals given the long history of systemic racism embedded in psychology and medicine. Historically and into the present day. Think about what happened to Serena Williams recently with the blood clots in her lungs. Black people definitely have every reason to be distrustful of the medical and mental health professions. And even if we set the systemic racism issue aside momentarily, it always feels better to receive knowledge from people who understand your context: your culture, your particular systemic struggles, how you see the world, etc. without the client/patient having to find energy to teach the provider (just to receive decent basic care). My suggestion (considering who I am writing this website for): Google and find more books, websites, resources, etc. on parenting strategies and child therapy books preferably written by mental health professionals of color (mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists, marriage and family counselors, school counselors, and psychiatrists) or childhood researchers of color. The right person will be someone who is competent with working with people of color (including LGBTQAI people of color), ideally from that respective community, AND also has the knowledge, skills, training, and years of experience working with those communities to go along with it.
Again, this ain’t easy. Honestly, changing the way you discipline your children might be one of the most difficult things you’ll do as a parent. And yet…and still…the evidence is right in front of you staring you dead in the face. Beatings and shaming just don’t work and the negative impact they have on mental health (increased risk of depression in young adulthood, etc. ) and the impact it’s had on how people deal with each others (children being more likely to try to deal with issues by hitting other children, young adults being more likely to be physical violent towards their partners, etc.) can’t easily be ignored. Feel free to google the alternatives I mentioned and/or look up some resources from mental health professionals and researchers of color, especially from your own culture, for other ways to discipline children.
Thanks for reading. Next post will focus on maintaining hygiene while living with active depressive and/or anxiety symptoms on 4/8/18.