Should parents and teachers be allowed to physically discipline kids?

A new survey shows more than half of Canadians don’t think so.

A new survey shows that Canadians' thoughts on physical discipline are shifting.
A new survey shows that Canadians' thoughts on physical discipline are shifting.

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Despite the fact that it’s banned in 65 countries, physically punishing children is still legal in Canada. But, should parents and teachers still be allowed to use physical force to discipline kids? A new survey shows that more than half of Canadians don’t think so.

Fifty-one percent of those surveyed believe legislation that allows parents and teachers to use “reasonable force” to discipline children should be abolished.

A growing body of research shows that physical discipline can be harmful and ineffective for setting limits with kids, and more Canadians are now opting to use gentle parenting practices instead.

“Given that we are in a mental health crisis, it makes perfect sense to me that parents want to do what they can to either lessen the impacts of mental health or prevent mental health problems from developing in their kids in the first place,” Julia Swaigen, MSW, RRW and founder of Attuned Families tells Yahoo Canada.

The effects of physical discipline on kids

A recent study out of Harvard University shows that spanking children alters their brain response in similar ways to experiencing severe maltreatment, and even sexual abuse. The study looked at 147 children, and found that those who had been spanked had a “higher reactivity response in the areas of their brain that regulate emotional responses and detect threats — even to facial expressions that most would consider non-threatening.”

Additionally, preschool and school age children who experienced physical discipline were found to be more likely to develop anxiety and depression disorders. They also had difficulty engaging positively in school and self regulating their emotions.

“It’s clear from the research, and I certainly see in my practice, that the caregiver has to feel safe for a child to securely attach,” Swaigen explains. “No one has perfect self regulation, but if there’s enough yelling, pushing away, consistent disapproval — and certainly physical aggression — it doesn’t feel safe and our kids aren’t going to want to be close to us.”

Focus on secure attachment

Having a healthy attachment with a safe, loving caregiver is a huge protective factor in preventing mental health issues, Swaigen notes. And, according to The Canadian Pediatric Society, positive relationships with primary caregivers are essential for a child to develop capable coping skills.

Children learn to speak, think and express their emotions from the relationships they’re engaged in, and the parent-child relationship has been found to be the one that most strongly affects emotional and behavioural function.

“We know that having a healthy attachment to primary caregivers sets you up for success in relationships,” Swaigen says. “Whereas having an insecure attachment in a relationship in the early years can make it a lot harder to develop healthy relationships later on in life.”

Gentle parenting strategies

The #gentleparenting hashtag on TikTok has almost 3 billion views — and for good reason. This parenting strategy is one of the most effective ways to foster a secure attachment with your child, according to experts.

While it might seem “trendy," Swaigen argues it’s anything but.

“It’s not new, it just wasn’t as popular,” she explains, referring to the work of renowned psychotherapist Haim Ginott. His methods inspired the gentle parenting movement, which is rooted in the recognition that denying children’s feelings makes them more intense and confused.

According to Swaigen, this nonviolent approach to parenting includes a soft demeanour, a gentle voice and a focus on validating the child’s feelings. But, she notes, it’s important not to forgo your boundaries in the process.

“From a clinical perspective what we are helping parents do is validate all their children’s different emotions, but still be able to set limits and have expectations,” Swaigen says. “They need to know where that line is because they don’t feel safe if they don’t.”

Gentle parenting is a balancing act — one that’s well worth the effort.

“The reason we encourage parents to use this approach is because it builds emotional intelligence and it reduces problematic behaviours in the long run," she says. "Parents think it takes longer to practice than psychically discipline, but it saves so much time and aggravation if you look at it big picture.”

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