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Alternatives to Corporal Punishment

by Sanderson Beck

Discipline in the raising and teaching of children is necessary if they are to become social, productive, and responsible adults. Punishment is only one method of disciplining, and corporal punishment is only one aspect of punishment. In analyzing the effects of punishment on children's behavior, Ross Parke (1972) has discussed much of the research and its implications. He found that punishment is less effective in facilitating learning and resisting the disapproved behavior the longer the punishment is delayed. As expected, severe punishment is more effective than less intense stimuli. Whereas high intensity punishment was found to be equally effective early or late, the less intense method was more effective when applied early than later. In other words, a less aversive punishment is more effective when it is used immediately following the maladjusted behavior than it would be if time were allowed to pass. However, explaining the reasoning for what is correct behavior and what is not has been shown to be more effective than punishment alone, and can make delayed punishment just as effective as the immediate application. Also the reasoning and cognitive structuring procedures have proven to be more long-lasting in their influence. Thus intense punishment can be effectively avoided.

The ties of affection between punishing agent and the child punished also influence the effectiveness of controlling behavior. Sears, Macoby, and Levin (1957) found that warm, affectionate mothers reported that their spanking was an effective method of discipline, while cold, hostile mothers indicated that spanking was ineffective. Parke (1967) discovered that if the administrator of punishment was threatening to withdraw their affection from the child, the child was more obedient than with consistent affection. However, this approach of emotional manipulation may have affective psychological side-effects on the child. One is modeling, where the child may learn to try to coerce others by turning on and off affection. Another is that the child might develop emotional insecurity if this treatment is continued for a long period of time.

Another important factor in the effectiveness of punishment is consistency. McCord et al (196l) found that erratic disciplinary procedure correlated with criminality. Not only is the consistent more effective than the intermittent, but inconsistency makes it very difficult to change behavior by means of consistent punishment in the future. Apparently the child assumes that one can still get away with it occasionally because of one's past experience.

In summary, effective punishment is immediate, consistent, explained rationally, and administered by someone who has an affectionate relationship with the recipient. What are some of the long-term effects and consequences of punishment which appears to be the most effective, immediate solution? In particular, what are the disadvantages of corporal punishment?

We mentioned modeling. Psychologically children tend to identify with their parents and teachers, and often try to emulate them. Parents and teachers who lower themselves to physical violence and aggression in an attempt to control children are setting an example the children may try to follow (Bandura, 1967). This is the hypocrisy of "Do what I say, not what I do," but the actions are often louder than the words.

Another major objection to punishment is that it can harm the relationship between the parent or teacher and the child. Wishing to avoid punishment, the child will try to avoid its administrator, whether physically or psychologically. The child may withdraw, and the adult may lose the child's confidence. How likely is it that children will share their problems and difficulties, or be honest when asked a question, if they know they my be hurt if they tell the truth? Also the child may associate the aversive stimuli from punishment with the teacher, school, and the learning process, frustrating motivation to learn.

Aronfreed and Leff (1963) found that more intense punishment can interfere with subtle cognitive discriminations. If children are feeling and thinking they may be punished, will their attentiveness be as clear and perceptive? Even though it may be a negative motivator, this study shows that punishment can also be a distraction from learning.

If disciplining is necessary in child-rearing, but we wish to avoid the harmful effects of corporal punishment, what are our alternatives? By refusing to use physical punishment, perhaps we can refine and develop those other techniques which may prove more beneficial and enduring than the easy and quick brutality. Punishment does not have to be physical; it can be social, emotional, or mental. One form of punishment is the administering of an aversive stimulus contingent upon disapproved behavior The other is the removal of a reward or positive reinforcer (Skinner, 1938). The undesirable consequences of punishment are primarily psychological, so it appears likely that non-physical psychological methods may also have negative effects psychologically. However, to avoid using any form of punishment whatsoever is probably too idealistic and impractical. The psychological methods are not as obvious in modeling. Also they are usually stimulating cognitively, and may stimulate the child to develop the mind just as much physical exercise builds muscles. The danger is that negative associations and complexes could result. This is why it is so important that the punishment not only be consistent in how and for what it is applied, but also that it be logical and clearly explained to the child before it is ever instituted and with each occurrence. Even though the child may feel the parent is wrong; if one i consistent, at least the child knows the situation and can learn to understand the psychology of the parent.

Using reasoning to accompany punishment when it is deemed necessary brings up the method of teaching and communicating as an alternative method. This is the ideal method of long-term control of behavior, because it develops the conscience, cognitive skill, and self-discipline. Wouldn't it be the utopia if everyone took responsibility for their own actions and did not inflict on others? I believe that educators ought to use those methods that teach individual responsibility. Research shows that the development of conscience is related to parental warmth and the use of reasoning as a technique of discipline (Bandura & Walters, 1951; Baumrind, 1967; Sears, 1961). When the child has developed self-control and one's conscience to the extent that one will no longer do what one knows is wrong even when one knows one won't be punished, then we could say one's character education has been successful.

The method of distributive justice (Piaget, 1948) as opposed to retributive justice is a method of punishment that teaches responsibility. Rather than as retaliation (retributive), punishment can be designed as a corrective method of making the person responsible. In other words, whatever harm children have done should be corrected by them as feasible as possible by devising some action by which they can repay the persons or the situations with some compensation. This ethical principle of distributive justice or compensation (Emerson) is profoundly accepted in the Eastern world as a spiritual law (karma). By facilitating this process, discipline becomes less artificial and more accurate and appropriate to the life experience.

For changing basic habit patterns, and inability of the child to control one's basic instincts, desire, impulses, and emotions, there are well-known methods of behavioral modification which can be quite effective. First it is important not to reinforce or reward problem behavior with positive attention or indulgence. The technique of extinction is to ignore the behavior altogether, hoping that the person will stop behaving that way. This technique would mainly be useful in extinguishing attention-getting behavior, such as tantrums which usually are repeated as a method children use to control adult's behavior. Counter-conditioning usually ignores or initially punishes the negative behavior while reinforcing some other positive behavior. In this situation immediate and consistent punishment can be mild and brief if the positive reinforcement of the alternative behavior is at all effective. When combined with teaching and communication, these techniques can be effective and therefore, it is hoped, brief.

Another alternative is to take a cue from the student's behavior and perhaps see a need to change the environment so it will be more conducive to the children. Also motivation can be re-directed by modeling (examples) and teaching (explanation). It is important that children be shown positive directions and learn what is correct behavior.

Copyright 1996 by Sanderson Beck

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