Still Stuck in Low Gear

USAToday reported today that the American Psychological Association had joined a growing list of health organizations calling for a ban on spanking because it can cause short- and long-term harm to children. "The research on the adverse outcomes associated with physical discipline indicates that any perceived short-term benefits of physical discipline do not outweigh the detriments of this form of discipline," the APA said in its Resolution on Physical Discipline of Children By Parents, USAToday reported. That’s good news for kids, although the APA is a little late to the show (numerous other organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, beat them to the punch, so to speak). The reality is that the adverse effects of physical punishment have been well-established for quite some time.

Of course, here in the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) Territories, we’re still not satisfied. As we underscore in our documentary film, The Kids We Lose, corporal punishment is still applied over 100,000 times every year in American public schools (what I’ve come to refer to as state-sponsored child abuse). That’s every bit as disturbing, an issue the APA resolution ignores. Worse, the APA resolution also recommends that spanking be replaced by "positive" discipline strategies such as reasoning, time-outs, withholding privileges, warnings, and ignoring misbehavior.

They just lost me. Now, don't get me wrong...I’ll take time-outs, rewards, warnings, and ignoring over spanking any day. And I’m well aware of the body of research telling us that these behavior modification procedures are an effective means of reducing challenging behaviors. But I’m equally aware of the research telling us that these procedures often don’t lead to durable change, are far less effective in kids who are older and more aggressive, and aren’t effective for a meaningful percentage of kids to whom they are applied. And, of course, these procedures aren't all.

But the biggest problem is that behavior modification procedures are focused on the wrong thing: behavior. In the CPS model, behavior is viewed as the signal, the fever, the means by which a child communicates that he or she is having difficulty meeting certain expectations. So it’s great that the light has finally turned green for the APA. But it’s still stuck in the behavior gear. The antidote for spanking -- as well as for time-outs and sticker charts -- is to focus on the problems that are causing challenging behavior and to solve those problems collaboratively and proactively. Doing so has been found to be every bit as effective at reducing challenging behavior as rewarding and punishing (see the Research section on this website). And time-outs and rewards, and warning, and ignoring simply don't solve the problems that are causing challenging behavior and don't teach kids the skills they’re lacking.

So, sure, we get it: all progress is incremental. The trajectory is in the right direction. But we’re still in low gear. We have a long way to go.

Want to help us out? Become a Lives in the Balance Advocator. There's a lot more work to be done.

Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.
February 18, 2019