Many parents say they plan to stop corporal punishment of their children after a parenting skills program.

Given the known benefits of developing healthy parenting skills, a big challenge is to help moms and dads improve their approaches, particularly shifting away from corporal punishment of children.

That’s where our breakthrough comes in. We’ve designed a free, low cost parenting skills program — taking just a few minutes – that’s proven to shift parents’ attitudes away from corporal punishment.

This program, designed for parenting of children aged between six months and seven years, not only changes views on corporal punishment. It’s also a gateway to learn more generally about healthy parenting skills.

A cost-effective way to reduce corporal punishment of children

Such a parenting skills program, successfully applied across large numbers of parents, could be a major contribution to public health and to children’s long-term well-being at a manageable cost across large populations. This could be an important advance since other programs that aim to reduce corporal punishment of children have involved many sessions, which can make the cost prohibitive for mass programming.

“This parenting skills program not only changes views on corporal punishment. It’s also a gateway to learning more generally about healthy parenting.”

There is clearly a big opportunity if a good – ‘low dose’, highly effective – intervention can be perfected. Our intervention is an initial step, demonstrating that it’s possible to change parents’ attitudes around discipline with a brief, low-cost, ‘small dose’ parenting skills intervention.  That’s encouraging because other research shows that when parents alter their attitudes to corporal punishment of children, parental behavior also changes.

Tackling corporal punishment of children without stigmatising parents

Our intervention, developed and tested at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, is rooted in a multimedia programme on the website Playnicely.org. It avoids labelling parents as bad moms or dads or as abusive to their children. That approach could alienate — and create a conflict with — the parents we most need to influence.

Instead, the multimedia parenting skills program adopts a strengths-based approach, offering parents lots of options for disciplining their children in ways that avoid corporal punishment. A key question the program asks is: ‘What do you do if your child hits another?’ I love this question because early childhood aggression is a strong predictor of later violence, so we’re getting to the heart of a huge public health problem.

Offering options that are better than corporal punishment of children

We know that parents are less likely to hit their children if they’re given better options. In the parenting skills program, we run with this idea by giving parents 20 disciplinary options. Some are great, others are not. Clicking on an option is followed with a notice about whether the option is or isn’t recommended and approximately one minute of educational content. One option, for example, involves corporal punishment: it’s not recommended, as you might have guessed.

This parenting skills program not only changes views on corporal punishment. It’s also a gateway to learning more generally about healthy parenting. The options can be tweaked to respond to other challenging behaviors such as oppositional defiant disorder, where children don’t listen well to parents or constantly defy what their parents say.

We’ve found that among parents who clicked at least four of the 20 options, 83 percent said they planned to alter their disciplinary approaches. In comparison, just 7 per cent of who didn’t receive the intervention planned to change their disciplining in any way. In the intervention group, 9 percent spontaneously said they would decrease corporal punishment, compared with none in the control group.

“An important next step for this parenting skills program will be establishing how large a ‘dose’ is needed to prompt not only a desire to alter behavior, but actual changes in behavior.”

A feature of the parenting skills program is that paediatricians and other healthcare providers can introduce all parents to it as a quick way to learn a few things about discipline in ways that avoids corporal punishment. Using this approach, parents are not screened or stigmatised.  They can also try the program at home, scrolling through the options. Alternatively, they can review a printed handbook in the clinic or check out a copy from our family resource centre. We’re currently testing whether the printed or online versions are more effective and whether viewing the content at home works as well as research has found it to work in our clinical setting. So far, we seem to get the best results with clinic viewing.

Need to ensure that parents act on intention to stop corporal punishment of their children

Considerable hurdles remain to perfecting interventions that tackle corporal punishment. An important next step for this parenting skills program will be establishing how large a ‘dose’ is needed to prompt not only a desire to alter behavior, but actual changes in behavior over time.

There is also the question of how to make such information widely available to parents. In the US, paediatricians are trained to address child behavior issues and educate parents about topics such as discipline and punishment. So their clinics are, in principle, suitable locations for such interventions. However, appointments typically last only 15-20 minutes, and that time is normally taken up by clinical issues.

Parents might be concerned about their child’s cough, abdominal pain or a sore throat. There’s screening for conditions such as tuberculosis, vision or hearing problems, autism and developmental concerns. We must ensure that immunisations are up to date. So it can be an extraordinary challenge to fit in another service around healthy parenting, available to everyone, that insurers may be reluctant to fund.

Screening parents could reduce costs

A solution to addressing cost and time might involve some initial screening for parents to identify those most in need of help. Lots of parents are currently using healthy disciplining and don’t need input. Screening would reduce the number of parents to be reached. We’ve tested 1,500 parents using a screener and this approach shows promise. However, great care would have to be taken not to stigmatise those who were identified as being in need of help. It would be far better if we could work out a sustainable way to reach all parents with influential messages about healthy parenting, so that corporal punishment is challenged and reduced.

corporal punishment diagram

Header photo: Sam S. Creative Commons. 

Policy Implications

Governments should support health care providers in their efforts to screen children for exposure to unhealthy parenting and, as indicated, for educational interventions.

Practice Implications

Health care providers should screen children for exposure to unhealthy discipline and intervene accordingly.

References

 Scholer SJ, Hudnut-Beumler, J, Dietrich MS (2010), A brief primary care intervention affects parents’ plans to discipline, Pediatrics 125.2

 Chavis A, Hudnut-Beumler J, Webb MW, Neely JA, Bickman L, Dietrich MS, Scholer SJ (2013), A brief intervention affects parents’ attitudes toward using less physical punishment, Child Abuse & Neglect 37.12

 Hudnut-Beumler J, Smith A, Scholer SJ (2017), How to convince parents to stop spanking their children, Clinical Pediatrics 57.2