04 May One thing is for sure: making a fist does not yield well-behaved little children
Most people would agree: children need to be raised better. But this is easier said than done. How do you call a nagging child to order in a supermarket? Give him a smack like in the old days? Or do we, like television super nanny Jo Frost preaches, mainly praise children when they have done something good/right? One thing is for sure: hitting children when they have done something naughty works counterproductively. This is what countless researchers have found. Children who are regularly smacked are behind in their development and have, on average, a lower IQ. They also have a higher risk of psychological problems later on. They behave more aggressively as children, and also as adults. Students who are hit as children display more criminal behaviour. This became clear in a 2013 study by the University of New Hampshire (USA). Students from 15 countries were studied
Attention is attention
The fact that punishment makes one more aggressive is not hard to believe. Those who hit deliver the wrong example to their child. You show that hitting is okay, as long as you are in power/control. Less is known about the effect of taking pleasure away from children (“You are not allowed to play on your iPad tonight”). Science does describe that, for various reasons, it is more effective to reward good behaviour than to punish bad behaviour. Punishment gives attention to negative behaviour. There is no use threatening punishment and getting angry if your child keeps on throwing his toys away. The child wants attention and has found a way to get it.
Negative attention, no doubt, but something is always better than nothing. Research shows that a child’s brain reacts better to reward than to punishment. Eight-year-olds mostly learn from positive feedback (“well done”). But no alarm bells start ringing with negative feedback (“too bad, wrong”). Psychologists of the University of Leiden (NL) researched this. Children and adults were given a computer assignment while lying in an MRI scanner. When they did it right a plus appeared on the screen. When they made a mistake a cross appeared. With the adults and children of 12 and 13, the brain area needed for cognitive control (the control centre of the brain), reacted mainly to negative feedback and hardly to positive. With children of 8 and 9 this was the opposite.
We could deduce from this that you should reward your child, especially from the start of adolescence. But do you have to keep promising to buy him an ice-cream if he doesn’t nag while shopping? One has to be careful with that, warn the experts. You don’t accomplish anything with rewards in the long run, according to American author of educational books, Alfie Kohn. As soon as the reward is no longer given, children will fall into their old habits again.
If you give your child money if he tidies up his room, the chances are small that he will ever do it of his own accord. Reward is, just like punishment, no more than a trick to manipulate the behaviour of your children, claims Kohn. You ensure that they behave temporarily. But they don’t learn why they shouldn’t do something. What is the alternative? Discuss it together. Let the child think about a solution. And explain why you want him to do certain things.
Screaming does not help
Screaming at rebellious teenagers helps just as little as spanking them. This is apparent from research from the University of Pittsburgh (USA). In general it only escalates the problem. The researchers discovered that teenagers who were shouted at frequently had more problems with depression and sooner tended towards problem behaviour like vandalism or other anti-social behaviour. In other words: the same negative effects that physical punishment has on children in general. It didn’t matter whether the teenagers came from a ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ family, much to the surprise of the researchers. Whether shouting was done out of love or other motives made no difference.
T he book Baby and Childcare by Benjamin Spock (1946) brought about a revolution in the way parents raised their children. It was one of the biggest bestsellers ever. Millions of parents from all over the world used the ‘Bible of Spock’ as a guide to raise their children. Spock convinced parents to take it easy and behave mostly lovingly towards their children.
Children had to be hugged and parents had to give themselves a chance to enjoy their children. An eye-opener for the after-war generation who had been raised with a firm hand. There were also plenty of opponents to Spock’s tolerant raising method. They held him responsible for the hippie movement at the end of the ‘60s when society was turned upside down. It would be his fault that a generation of spoilt children had grown up only interested in fulfilling their own desires and not being bothered about their duties or social responsibilities. Rumour has it that Spock’s own child committed suicide. Not true. It was his grandson, who suffered from the psychiatric disorder schizophrenia, who took his own life.