Discipline, Punishment and Abuse

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Child Abuse is at epidemic proportions.  The cause is the use of punishment, instead of discipline. While all abuse uses punishment, not all punishment is abusive. This does not mean “mild” punishment works or is okay, because all punishment is based on the belief that children must suffer, somehow, to “learn their lesson.” Anytime you impose suffering on another person, it is disrespectful and can cause damage to the relationship.

Parents and even professionals may give unhealthy advice to parents, such as “Show them who’s boss.” “You should make kids feel bad when they misbehave.” “Make sure the punishment is unpleasant.” “What they need is a good spanking.” “Stand them in a corner until a timer goes off.” “Take away their favorite activity.” “Do it because I said so, don’t ask why.” “That will teach them.” In truth, punishment doesn’t teach, it just hurts. While that might be obvious when referring to spanking and other forms of “corporal” punishment (which includes slapping, hitting, pinching, or anything else physically painful), anytime someone imposes suffering, it makes learning more difficult and builds resentment toward the person causing the suffering.

All punishment causes physical or emotional suffering. If that suffering is harmful, it’s now crossed the line into being abuse. The damage might not be visible, like bruises, but the emotional scars can last a lifetime. Punishment can involve physical suffering, such as spanking, hitting, grabbing, squeezing, tweaking, dragging, shoving, or slapping. It can also involve “power plays,” lectures, and harmful words that blame, shame, warn, threaten, or put-down.Punishment is unfair and usually lasts too long. Often, the parent uses the same punishment every time, whether it relates to the misbehavior or not. When angry or hurt, parents use punishment as a weapon for revenge.

Punishment is like a silent addiction; because it often seems to work, parents get a “quick fix.” Instead of wanting to behave well, children only behave because they are afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t! Over time, children become immune to punishment. They might sneak and misbehave when the parent isn’t looking. They get a you-can’t-hurt-me attitude and punishments must become harsher to “work.” Children develop an I-don’t-care attitude and can believe it’s okay to “do the crime” if they are willing to “pay the time.” Most important, punishing parents are so busy controlling their children, children don’t learn self-control! Instead, they often take advantage of any power they have (with other children, a sibling, or when they are a parent or spouse) to act out the anger and frustration they’ve been holding in. All abusive people have been punished or abused by someone (not necessarily a parent). It is learned behavior. Fortunately, not all abused children grow up to be abusive or punishing parents. They have a choice; they can “get the cure.

The solution: The solution to child abuse and harmful punishing habits involves everyone. We each (parents and professionals) need to relearn the way we think and act when it comes to disciplining children. Replace unhealthy beliefs and actions with positive, healthy ones. If we are honest with ourselves, each of us can probably find at least one punishing belief or action we use. Learn healthy, effective discipline skills. There is a lot of inaccurate parenting advice floating around out there, so we need to “screen” advice before we put it to use.

The cure for the punishment disease starts by understanding what discipline is — and isn’t. Discipline comes from the word “disciple,” which means “to follow one who teaches.” This reminds us to ask ourselves, “What will this discipline teach my child about controlling his or her own behavior?” Before or after misbehavior, the parent describes the behavior he or she wants to see and explains how negative behavior affects other people or things. “You can either (positive behavior and its benefit) or (negative behavior and its effect).” When children misbehave, the parent makes it clear that the discipline is a result of the child’s behavior choice, not the parent’s power. Punishment says, “If you do (negative behavior), I’m going to do (punishmentto you.” This is a power play. On the other hand, discipline says, “If you choose to (negative behavior), I’ll know you’ve decided to (experience the negative consequence).

While discipline involves teaching, it is not “all talk.” When parents take action, it needs to be logically related to the misbehavior, only last long enough to teach the lesson, and presented respectfully. Instead of making the child suffer, the focus is on fixing the mistake or learning how to prevent it in the future.Children learn self-discipline, not blind obedience. Effective discipline has its own language and actions. Most parents and professionals have good intentions, but could make a few important changes in their words or actions.This will help them avoid the risks of punishment and reap all the benefits of discipline.

Are you a carrier of this disease? Have you already been infected? Are you willing to be a part of the cure? If so, seek immediate education at your local parenting class. Parenting classes are not just for abusive parents. They are especially for parents who care about doing the best job they can in their most important job — parenthood.

If you want more insights, information and practical tools and tips about disciplining children:

Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network , and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting . She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop .For 25+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide,  including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television seriesJody currently serves as the online parenting expert for Cox Ohio Publishing’s mom-to-mom websites and also serves on the Advisory Board of the National Effective Parenting Initiative .

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