Ask Dr. Doug: Positive Parenting
Q: I recently read online that the American Academy of Pediatrics now strongly recommends against spanking. My parents are always telling me my son needs a good smack on his bottom when he misbehaves or talks back to me. I don’t feel like I want to do it, but I’m often at a loss of what to do instead. Any advice?
A: Great question, and one that brings up a lot of strong feelings. Right off the bat – trust your mama or papa instincts. Strong family ties are an important source of growth and happiness, but they often come with a lot of unhelpful advice. You are your son’s parent, not your mom or dad.
What I’m hearing you say is that spanking doesn’t feel right to you as a strategy, and it doesn’t feel right to me either. What are we teaching our kids? You hit your sister so now you get hit? I would also say it’s very difficult to spank your child with a calm and loving heart. When we’re angry, the physicality of it shades towards a place we don’t want to be as parents. Remember, discipline means “to teach,” not “to punish.”
Here’s the second part of the recommendation that isn’t getting as much press, but is just as important: In addition to not spanking, caregivers should not use harsh verbal discipline, including shaming, humiliation, insulting, or threatening harm. Of course our kids are going to make us angry, upset, and overwhelmed – they are kids. Can we resolve to not hit and not yell? It’s harder, I know!
Here’s the dirty secret about spanking – although it may stop a behavior for a few minutes, long term it just doesn’t work. It teaches our kids that the way to solve a problem is to be aggressive. Worse, repeated use of harsh physical punishment makes kids more aggressive and depressed when they are older. There is some evidence it makes us depressed as parents, too!
So what to do instead? We still need to support our kids in making healthy decisions. Bodies need to stay safe. Relationships need to stay respectful. But we can do that in a firm, loving way that helps our kids feel safe when they feel overwhelmed, by giving them strategies to problem solve for when they are calm. That in turn helps them build resilience across their lifetime. I would call this positive parenting, or attunement parenting. We are going to use different strategies and different scripts based on the age of our kids, but overall principles are the same.
First, you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of small humans. Prioritize your sleep, healing, and self-care. Second, kids do well if they can. Misbehavior is not them trying to make your life awful, it’s them showing you what skills they need to work on (usually loudly). Third, connect before you correct. Parenting is 80 percent connection and 20 percent discipline.
Last, don’t be afraid to get help. Child behavioral health concerns impacting families is much more common than people realize; I help with it every day in clinic. If you need support or strategies, reach out to your pediatrician so we can join efforts. There are plenty of bumps in the road of being a parent. Let’s make it a bit less bumpy by using positive discipline strategies with our kids.