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An Expert’s Advice: Talk, Reason--but Don’t Spank

David Coffey, a family psychiatrist in private practice in Westwood and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, spoke with RACHEL FISCHER about the wisdom of using physical punishment to discipline children.

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Part of my job is having empathy for parents, so I do not want to parent-bash. However, I feel strongly that physically punishing children can be harmful. There are better techniques that can produce the desired behavior.

A number of studies have found a higher incidence of aggressiveness, poor impulse control, suicide and alcohol abuse in children who grow up with such punishment. The danger also increases for kids to become abusers themselves. The greater the degree of severity of the punishment in childhood, the greater the aggression in later life.

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On the question of the effectiveness of spanking and the damage caused, more research is needed. In the meantime, no one in the scientific community recommends corporal punishment. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends methods of discipline that don’t require physical force.

The first of these is to provide a warm, loving relationship between parent and child. Second is to encourage the behaviors you’d like to see your child perform. And third is to provide consequences resulting from undesirable behavior. If a child is between the ages of 3 and 12, give them a “time out.” With a teenager, you take away the car or Internet access. Also, distinguish that it’s the behavior that’s “bad,” not the child himself. When your kids do the right thing, praise them to the skies.

I would guess the Bell children are successful because their father gave them attention. It’s not the form of punishment I personally would use. The alcoholic parent he mentioned who is a nonspanker has other complications that make his family troubled: Negligence, aggression and a lack of listening skills often define alcoholic parents.

You have to model organization and order for your children and show them that you resolve your own conflicts by being calm and willing to listen. It’s much easier to just spank; that’s why people do it. My belief is that all parents should have training. Many community centers, churches, synagogues and pediatricians offer classes.

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