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Kids Say Physical Discipline Doesn’t Work

Tuesday 27 September, 2005

Kids Say Physical Discipline Doesn’t Work, According To New Save The Children (NZ) Research

A new study into children’s perspectives on family discipline sends a strong message to parents that physical punishment does not work.

The research, conducted by child advocate Terry Dobbs and commissioned by Save The Children New Zealand, shows an alarming rate of physical punishment used in ordinary Kiwi families.

More than nine out of ten (92%) of the 80 children aged between five and 14 years interviewed for the study said they had been or that they believed children were smacked. Some reported being hit around the face and/or head and with implements and many described it as the first line of discipline the parent used, rather than a last resort.

The children reported parents were often angry or stressed when they smacked– and would later express regret or offer ‘treats’ to compensate. Children said smacking made them feel angry, upset and fearful – and was not an effective form of discipline.

“The information contained in this study is crucial for decision makers and every parent and caregiver of children in New Zealand,” Save The Children New Zealand executive director John Bowis says.

“Children’s voices are often missing from the debate around family discipline and effective parenting. The level of physical punishment reported in the study is shocking and delivers crucial information for the debate around the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961. Children need to be listened to in discussions about issues that affect them. They have some important messages which challenge the assumptions of many parents out there”.

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The study also found children were more often hit by fathers and male members of the household and were more often physically punished for hurting others.

“This sends a contradictory message to children,” Terry Dobbs says. “Children are told that it is wrong to hurt someone else and yet they are hurt in response to hurting others, this is a confusing message for children”

Children suggested that parents should stop being angry, and talk to children explaining what the child had done wrong before administrating any family discipline, as this would have better outcomes for both children and parents. They said that talking with children about the rules the child had broken would assist the child’s understanding, rather than using physical punishment, which did not. They said using ‘time-out’, having privileges removed or being grounded were more effective means of discipline.

The research formed the basis of Ms Dobbs’s thesis for her Master of Arts in Childhood and Youth Studies completed earlier this year and was supervised by Otago University’s Children’s Issues Centre.

The children were chosen from 10 different schools – ranging from decile one to 10 – across five geographical locations in New Zealand.

To fit the criteria for the study, the children had to have no known or alleged history of abuse or neglect and sufficient verbal skills to participate in focus group discussions. They were questioned using a storybook methodology about their experiences and understanding of family discipline and their views of the effects of various disciplinary techniques.


Save the Children New Zealand INSIGHTS Survey Highlights

- Physical punishment was the disciplinary technique most often used in most families with just four children in the study never having experienced it. It was often described as the first line of discipline parents used, and many children reported experiences of physical punishment – such as being smacked or hit around the face and/or head and with implements – that could be described as harsh or dangerous.

- The study demonstrated that all the children, irrespective of age or gender, had understanding of their own and other people’s behaviour and feelings when discipline occurred. For example, children reported that parents over-reacted and then felt guilty – children were then compensated with ‘treats’ or expressions of regret.

- Children suggested parents should talk and reason with children, rather than use physical punishment.
- Often messages were misunderstood or badly communicated – 57% of 5-7 year olds reported not understanding the parental disciplinary message or only understanding some of the time, while 51% of 9-11 year olds said that children did not always understand the vocabulary used by parents. The use of physical punishment, threats and withdrawal of material possessions is less effective in teaching children good behaviour than a more inductive style.

- Children reported being most often smacked for hurting others.
- Children reported being more often hit by fathers and male members of the household than female members.

- Implements reported being used on children were: belts, the cane, wooden spoons, spatula, a tennis racket and the “whacker”. Six of the 12 to 14 year olds reported that children get their mouths washed out with soap and/or made to ingest mustard.

- Children reported an inconsistency in their parents’ behaviour. One seven-year-old girl said: “they do act differently sometimes, don’t know why, it’s confusing”, while according to a six-year-old boy “sometimes it’s an accident and they still smack”.

- While younger children clearly opposed the use of physical punishment, older children began to rationalise its use with adult-type views about the value and necessity of physical punishment. All 21 of the five to seven year olds said it was not OK to smack, compared with 32% (10) of the 12-14 year olds.

- Some of the boys mentioned incidents where fathers endorsed their sons using physical force on siblings as a resolution to conflict. These boys also said that children get smacked because they deserved it and to toughen them up.

- Children reported that the use of ‘time out’, having privileges removed or being grounded were more effective means of discipline than the use of physical punishment. They were clear that physical punishment is one of the worst disciplinary measures parents can use.

- Some other quotes from children in the study: “They smack your bottom and get their shoe and smack with that” (girl, six); “You can’t have a say when they are angry and hitting you, it’s too late for that” (boy, nine); “We get the same punishment, but my sister is woosier than me because when dad knocks our heads together, it does the same damage and like I cry for two seconds and she cries for ages and she never comes out of her room for like five hours or something” (boy, nine); “The spatula gets used in our house” (girl, six); “My dad uses the tennis racket” (boy, seven)


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