May 18, 2009
In Support of the ‘Yes Vote’ for the NZ Referendum on Child Discipline 2009
The intention of most parents who use physical discipline is to correct behaviour and help their children become people who will make good choices, manage their actions, relate well to others and refrain from harming, destroying or upsetting the environment and people around them. In other words, their intentions are based in caring about their children.
The smacking issue, then, is not one of good versus bad parents. Nor is it one of ‘good’ use of physical discipline versus ‘harmful’ use of physical discipline. As with most issues affecting child development, this issue must be seen through the eyes of the child, and with a critical look at how smacking can interfere with the creation of healthy parent-child relationships and the adult relationships in that child’s future.
Many decades of research in the fields of attachment theory, neuroscience, child development and infant mental health have taught us that a healthy parent-child relationship is built on sensitivity and responsiveness, a foundation that allows the parent to come to know the child for who she really is and for the child to come to know herself – and her parent – within a safe and loving environment. A cornerstone of this process is called regulation. Basically, regulation is the ability for us to recognise our feelings, make sense of them and manage them. This is not only a key to the parent-child relationship, but to all mental health.
Children learn to regulate their feelings through interaction with their parents and other caregivers. These ‘co-created states’ allow a calm and loving adult to help the child learn the regulation ropes. For example, when a loud noise startles an infant and he begins to cry, most parents reflexively pick up the baby and give him a cuddle, usually speaking in soft soothing tones. This demonstrates how parents who have never heard of the word ‘regulation’ simply know that a young baby is unable to regulate himself. He needs help to calm down and when he is very young we must do the bulk of the work for him.
Imagine teaching a child to dance. At first they may stand on your feet, holding your hands and getting the feel of how their body moves. Later, as they get more comfortable, they can stand beside you on the floor, watching your feet but doing the steps themselves. Finally, after many lessons and much time, they will dance on their own whether or not you are in the room. But if the music changes they may again need a lesson to learn new steps and increase their repertoire. Eventually they will have dancing in their bones, knowing how to move with each piece of music they hear.
Teaching a child regulation is the same process. At first we do it for them, then with them, then they learn to do it on their own. But this takes a few years at least and even then when the going gets tough they need our help. We are no different – when adults go through crises we need loved ones to lean on to help us manage and get through.
A healthy attachment relationship teaches regulation with each step. When a baby succumbs to frustration or fear, when a toddler veers toward a meltdown, when an exhausted child reaches tears, the parent is there to comfort and teach. The teaching isn’t explicit. It comes from within the trusting relationship, from within the unspoken knowledge that the parent knows how to be calm and can model this for the child.
When a parent – regardless of how well intentioned – adds the ingredient of physical discipline to the relationship they unintentionally add fear to the equation. Fear is the key feature of disorganised attachment. In this most-worrying attachment style, the relationship is overshadowed by the child’s association of fear with the parent. This puts the child in an impossible situation: the person they love most is also a person to be feared. This impedes the ability to fully trust, to be vulnerable, to be emotionally present.
As you can imagine, this means that learning regulation is near-impossible. Not only can the child not feel safety and trust that allows this emotional learning, but the parent is regularly demonstrating that they do not have the regulation skills to teach. A parent who is angry or hitting is not a model of healthy regulation.
It is no surprise that attachment and psychological research show that children who experience physical discipline have higher levels of aggression, disobedience, anxiety, depression and addiction, as well as insecure attachment. Their ability to learn to manage their feelings and their ability to form a consistently warm and loving relationship with their parent has been impaired.
It is critical to remember that the rewards-and-punishments paradigm of behaviour management was invented by psychologist BF Skinner and his colleagues in the 1930’s and 1940’s. They learned – through work with rats and pigeons – that by rewarding certain behaviours and punishing others you could create ‘operant conditioning.’ In other words, you could train an animal (or child) to do certain things and not do other things via this method. Skinner became quite famous and this methodology, which still lingers in our culture today, was embraced by many. Behaviourism was not and is not concerned with anything other than training a being toward particular ways of acting. It omits deeper concerns like the effects on relationships, on mental health, on the development of compassion and empathy.
Neuroscience and attachment offer a solution. Empathy is learned through loving regulating relationships beginning in infancy and lasting through childhood and beyond. If we as a society want to develop something more – something that includes the ability to teach and learn empathy – we must forgive ourselves for our mistakes, let go of outdated ways of thinking, and embrace a new way of being with our children.
Lauren Porter is a principal at the Centre for Attachment. She is a member of the External Advisory Group for the NZ Government Taskforce on Child Maltreatment, a member of the Attachment Parenting International Research Group (API-RG) and an Infant Mental Health Association Aotearoa New Zealand (IMHAANZ) Executive Committee. She is the mother of two children.