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Disciplining children in the New Millennium

Disciplining recalcitrant children has emerged as one of the biggest challenges confronting parents in the new age of mass consumerism. Should they spare the traditional rod and spoil the child, or ideate new solutions for disciplining children? - Sruthy Susan Ullas


Arunima Rajeev, a 30-year-old Bangalore-based homemaker, has stopped going to grocery stores for shopping and switched to online purchases. That’s because an everyday shopping expedition with her five-year-old son, has become a nightmare. “As soon as we arrive at a store he starts demanding toys and chocolates and throws a temper tantrum when I refuse. I have spanked him on many occasions, feeling embarrassed at the time and terribly guilty later,” says Arunima.  

Most middle class parents in India and beyond, are experiencing similar problems with disciplining children. Disciplining recalcitrant children has emerged as one of the biggest challenges confronting parents in the new age of mass consumerism. Should they spare the traditional rod and spoil the child, or ideate new solutions for disciplining children?

Although expert opinion is almost unanimous that corporal punishment negatively impacts children’s personality development and behaviour, for most parents the preferred method of disciplining children is spanking — once a formal ritual punishment administered on the buttocks, far removed from the vulnerable head area — which has since become a generic term for hitting, slapping, caning and administering other forms of physical punishment. 
In a pan-India survey conducted by the Early Childhood Association (ECA) of India, which has a membership of 6,500 preschools countrywide, together with the First Moms Club (FMC), an online community of mothers, and Born Smart, a video-based parenting website in February 2018, a majority of the 1,790 parents interviewed confessed to spanking their children regularly. The survey highlights that 77 percent of parents spank/hit/pinch their children for behavioural lapses with 11 percent admitting that physical punishment is inflicted daily. Of the sample respondents, 40 percent of male and women parents interviewed were professionally qualified and in full-time employment while the remainder were full-time homemakers.

“It’s unfortunate that even in the 21st century so many well-educated parents continue to believe that by sparing the rod they are spoiling children. Our survey found that spanking children was the preferred form of disciplining them and it’s mothers who mostly practice it. As child rearing is mostly the responsibility of women with minimal participation from their husbands, this can be exhausting and overwhelming for them, particularly for working mothers who have to balance home and career. Women usually have to sacrifice their careers to mind the children and the latters’ temper tantrums irritate them easily, prompting them to spank and pinch. While most admit that corporal punishment is undesirable, they say they have no other alternative,” says Ruchita Shah, the Mumbai-based founder of First Moms Club and a mother of two boys.

The ECA-FMC-Born Smart anti-spanking campaign broadcast on social media, which has gone viral, also includes parenting workshops and distribution of advisory booklets. Numerous celebrity parenting experts including Sue Atkins, UK-based author of Parenting Made Easy — How to Raise Happy Children (pub. 2012), have endorsed it. 

Even though in India and most Asian countries, mild physical punishment is still believed to be the most effective option for disciplining children, Western psychologists and child rights activists are dead against physical and corporal punishment. According to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology (April 2016), the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to become defiant and exhibit anti-social behaviour, aggression, perhaps suffer mental health problems and experience cognitive deficiencies. The study, a meta-analysis of 50 years of research on spanking by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and University of Michigan who surveyed 160,000 children, is acknowledged as the most detailed analysis of the negative outcomes associated with administering corporal punishment to children.

A more recent study published in Psychological Science (November 2017) reiterates that corporal punishment by parents and teachers is detrimental to the socio-emotional development and well-being of children. This US study, which surveyed 12,112 children, indicated that children who had been spanked by their parents before age five exhibited more pronounced behavioural problems at ages 6-8, compared with children who had never been physically punished. “Our findings suggest that spanking is not an effective technique and actually makes children’s behaviour worse, not better,” says Elizabeth T. Gershoff, psychological scientist at the University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study.

Dr. Sagar Mundada, an alumnus of the Grant Medical College and JJ Group of Hospitals, Mumbai, and currently a practicing psychiatrist, concurs. “All forms of physical punishment inflicted on children prompt greater aggression, anti-social behaviour, and mental health problems. There is a classic story about a mother who believed that spanking was a necessary evil, until the day she observed her three-year-old daughter spanking her year-old brother. When parents resort to inflicting physical punishment on children, they demonstrate that it’s alright for the latter to display aggression, threatening behaviour and even beat peers. Moreover as children become more defiant, parental disciplining often escalates to sticks, belts etc. Parental belief in corporal punishment as the easiest form of disciplining children, is completely misplaced. It creates a fear-based parent-child relationship, and children will stop confiding in and communicating with their parents,” warns Mundada. 

The outcome of inflicting corporal punishment — defined as “physical punishment of people, especially of children, by hitting them” in the Cambridge dictionary — has most impacted rural India. In rural and small-town households where parents tend to be under-educated if not illiterate, corporal punishment visited upon wives and children is normative. This phenomenon often has a horrific under-reported social consequence. When abusive parents become old and infirm and wholly dependent on their grown children in a society where there is no public security or safety net, the latter extract terrible retribution by routinely neglecting and abusing their aged parents, appropriating their property, sending them out to beg and often driving them to premature death by suicide and/or calculated neglect. 

“Children who are physically punished often become defiant, aggressive and controlling as they grow older. Their relationship with their parents also ranges from being distant and disconnected to violent and turbulent,” says Dr. Nithya Poornima, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the country’s showpiece National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore (estb. 1925).

Yet even as informed public opinion in India is divided on the pro’s and con’s of even mild spanking to discipline spoilt, demanding brats, expert and public opinion in more literate and well-educated Western democracies is wholly against infliction of even the mildest physical punishment on children which is viewed as violation of their human rights. In 2006, a United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child unequivocally declared that physical punishment is “legalised violence against children” that should be eliminated in all settings through “legislative, administrative, social and educational measures”. Earlier in 1989, 192 national governments (India included) jointly signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Specifically, 43 countries around the world have banned corporal punishment in all environments including schools, homes and correctional facilities, the first being Sweden in 1979. Although legislated, these bans have typically been used as public education initiatives, rather than attempts to criminalise parents who inflict corporal punishment on children, says Elizabeth Gershoff, of the University of Texas at Austin (quoted earlier). While India has banned corporal punishment in schools, it is yet to proscribe physical punishment of children in home environments.

Meanwhile even as public and informed opinion on the subject of sparing the rod is divided in India where research on such subjects is rare, in industrially and educationally developed OECD countries, the weight of public opinion is overwhelmingly in favour of use of non-violent alternate strategies to discipline unruly children. For instance, Dr. Alan Kazdin, professor of psychology at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, recommends positive reinforcement and praise to reward children for good behaviour. Similarly US-based developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind advises parents to assert themselves but to remain calm and patient while negotiating good behaviour practices. According to Baumrind, parents should listen to children’s opinions, encourage independence, set limits, detail consequences, and explain parental expectation on issues of children’s behaviour while exuding warmth, love and encouraging children to discuss options even as they administer fair and consistent discipline. 

Dr. Sai Kirthi Kamath, consultant clinical child psychologist at Shree Brain and Spine Clinic, Bangalore, agrees. “Discipline is important and integral to responsible parenting. But spanking is not the solution for reforming unruly children. Parents need to be calm, patient but firm while insisting rules are followed. Discipline can be imposed through non-corporal ways. For instance an effective way to discipline young children is to punish unacceptable behaviour with loss of privileges such as time out and delaying play time. In the case of older children, parents should initiate dialogues to explain why and how behaviour can be modified, in a relaxed environment,” says Kamath. 

Unsurprisingly Swati Popat Vats, president of the Mumbai-based Podar Education Network and founder-president of ECA (India), the prime mover of the online anti-spanking campaign, believes that there are numerous alternatives to corporal punishment. “First, parents should set clear rules, limits, and explain their rationale to children. Second, they should be firm, fair and consistent when implementing them. Third, parents need to tailor rules and regulations according to the various developmental stages of each child. For instance two/three-year-olds are learning to become independent and will want to have things their own way. At this stage, parents need to encourage their children to aspire to autonomy and understand associated responsibilities. If parents constantly shout at and frighten children, the latter will lose confidence and doubt their own capabilities. Instead, they should explain and offer choices without bribing children into good behaviour. And most important, parents should model the good behaviour they expect from their children,” says Popat Vats who also recommends that parents sign up with online parents groups which discuss parenting issues. 

With millennials gravitating towards nuclear households in which both parents have to juggle home, work, children and social commitments, the stress and pressures of latter-day parenting are throwing many of them off balance, prompting them to vent their frustrations on children. Dr. Nithya Poornima (quoted earlier) advises parents to “first take care of themselves physically and emotionally so that they don’t vent their anger and stress on children”. “These days most urban parents run on auto-pilot, ignoring their body signaling rest and recreation. This makes them very edgy and irritable. It’s important for them to make the time for family meals, rest, healthcare and exercise so that they are kind, caring and patient with children. In NIMHANS we regularly conduct  workshops for parents who need training to control their emotions. Parents also need to learn how to respect and listen to children and discipline them with love, care and compassion,” says Poornima.   

Employing the rod to discipline children perhaps had its uses in bygone eras. Today, the almost unanimous expert viewpoint is that parents need to spare the rod to nurture and empower their children through love, care, patience and compassion to develop into happy and successful adults. That’s the new discipline for 21st century children.


10 ways to discipline your child

Swati Popat Vats, founder-president of the Early Childhood Association (ECA) of India and preschool and parenting guru, shares some ways to discipline children without resorting to corporal punishment 

Children < 3 years 

Ignore. Ignoring them helps children of this age group. For instance, if they have a habit of crying to get attention, if you consistently ignore them when they cry and pay attention when they don’t, the child learns that negative behaviour won’t work and will slowly adopt positive behaviour. Note: Ignore children only after they are over a year old.

Distraction. This works to cure even the worst temper tantrums. A simple ‘look what I found in this box’ followed by an action of covering your hand over a box, will intrigue her enough to stop the tears. But please choose the distraction carefully, because if it is a letdown, the child may resort to throwing a bigger tantrum.

Change of activity. Redirecting a child’s attention to a new activity is helpful in stopping negative behaviour. 


Children > 3 years

 Reward good behaviour
 Set clear rules and spell out consequences of violation
 Negotiate solutions
 Never bribe or threaten
 Buy time if necessary
 Impose discipline fairly and consistently
 Model good behaviour

Managing 4 common parent-child conflict situations

An alumna of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and currently a Pune-based child and adolescents therapist, Preeti Broker offers parents useful advice on managing four common conflict situations requiring imposition of discipline. 

Situation 1. In a supermarket while shopping for groceries, your four-six-year-old insists on buying goodies/chocolates/toys, and throws a temper tantrum — shouting, kicking, and finally falling to the ground — till she gets her way. 

Response. Understand that your child is not out to embarrass you. She is not yet emotionally equipped for having her gratification delayed or denied. 

• At this stage in their development, children want to become independent, so let her express her wants. Before you go to the supermarket, let her help you draw up the shopping list. Explain to her this is a grocery shopping expedition.

• Involve her in the shopping expedition and decision making.
Situation 2. My two-and-a-half-year-old keeps throwing food from her plate. When I admonish her she continues to do so, laughing and smiling.

Response. Your toddler has just found a new way to get your attention. 

• Don’t react to her bad behaviour. Engage with and distract her instead. 
• Give her a choice. Ask her if she is done with her meal and if so, involve her in another activity.
• Your child is moving back and forth between wanting to assert her independence and being dependent on you. Give her opportunities to get your attention by engaging in positive activities — setting the table or putting away her toys. 
• Set limits. “When you throw food off your plate, dinner is over.”
Situation 3. My ten-year-old son flies into a rage every time I ask him to switch off the television or return my smartphone. 

Response. Like many adults, your ten-year-old is having a tough time giving up a pleasurable activity.

• Pre-empt the TV shutdown time, “In five minutes, you’ll have to turn off the telly.”
• Agree upon a non-negotiable time duration period for watching television.
• Suggest another interesting activity/hobby instead of watching the idiot box.
• Follow the principle that pleasure — in this case watching television — is a reward for completing a task, such as homework.
Situation 4. My four-year-old daughter and I get into an argument every time we have to choose a dress for her to wear.

Response. You will be happy to learn your four-year-old is asserting her independence. Prioritise your battles. A four-year-old’s choices are driven by comfort, her world of imagination or in imitation of her peers. Allow her to express herself and listen to her point of view. If there are clothes you don’t want her to wear, remove them from her wardrobe.