Unintended Consequences: Defining the problem and creating strategies

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Written by: Matt Timm, PhD

My appreciation to OneOp for this opportunity to reflect upon  Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff’s webinar “Unintended Consequences:  What We Now Know About Spanking and Child Development”.

In addition to reviewing the available evidence regarding both immediate and long-term effects of corporal punishment on children, Dr. Gershoff also provided useful information regarding the incidence and negative outcomes across cultures and countries as well as the history of sanctioned corporal punishment in U.S. public and private schools.

Years ago, my friend and mentor, Dr. Nicholas Hobbs proposed the following insightful observation:  “The way one defines a problem will determine in substantial measure the strategies that can be used to solve it.” (The Troubled and Troubling Child, Jossey-Bass, 1982). A complimentary, also insightful observation had been provided a few centuries earlier from a different source: “We should examine most closely the things we hold to be most dear.” (René Descartes, French philosopher, mathematician, scientist- born 1596). This Cartesian maxim reminds us to re-examine and regularly challenge those entrenched opinions, beliefs, and practices that can become almost second-nature in our personal and professional lives as the years go by. Sometimes the result is to affirm and sometimes to modify or abandon. My own efforts to integrate and apply these frameworks have proved to be valuable over time.  Two sample illustrations of how problems associated with the recurrent use of physical punishment in families might be defined and how corrective strategies might be created and applied appear below:

Defining the Problem: Example #1

As reported by Dr. Gershoff, there is an extensive, ever-growing body of evidence that spanking/hitting and other forms of corporal punishment not only fail to produce desired results with children (i.e., more compliant, less aggressive, less anti-social, more internalization of morals) but in fact tend to produce opposite effects (i.e., the more parents spank the greater the probability of increased aggressive behavior, substantiated child abuse cases, mental health problems, difficult relationships with parents, lower self-esteem, lower academic performance, higher levels of stress and anxiety).

In light of this powerful evidence, here is an important question for your consideration: Why do you think so many otherwise concerned, often well-meaning parents, continue to spank?

  • Family tradition
  • Personal religious beliefs
  • Everybody does it
  • Unaware of data regarding negative effects
  • Denial

My experiences over the years involving parents struggling with the reality of young children whose oppositional, disruptive, often aggressive behaviors are wreaking havoc on the entire family, suggest that parents are frequently reluctant to disclose, discuss, much less attempt to defend their own continued use of corporal punishment. It can be an exceptionally touchy topic involving guarded family secrets or acknowledgment of parental failure. As irrefutable as findings of the long-term damaging effects of corporal punishment appear to be, they are obviously not sufficient to persuade all or even a majority of parents in the U.S. to cease the practice.

Creating and Implementing Strategies: Example #1

While recognizing the often complex, powerful web of factors leading parents to continued use of corporal punishment, it is essential that we help those parents understand that they are typically telling the child “what not to do” instead of helping them know “what to do.” A refrain heard frequently in RIP programs everywhere, and probably in many other settings as well, “Catch the child being good.”  This same principle applies to those of us vigorously opposing the parental use of corporal punishment. In word and deed, we must do our best to help parents concentrate on “what to do” rather than “what not to do.” Therein lies the road to genuine progress.

Eight summarized examples of identifiable “what to do” strategies appear in the following Positive Solutions for Families publication.  You’ll note that Tips #1 thru #5 emphasize antecedent, “planning ahead” adult behavior; that Tips #6 and #7 emphasize differential adult behavior in response to acceptable or unacceptable child behavior; and that Tip #8 emphasizes adult behavior choices during neutral time “when everyone is calm enough to think and talk and listen.”

Defining the Problem:  Example #2

Dr. Gershoff sorted eight “Interventions to Reduce Physical Punishment” into three major categories and provided examples of each as follows:

1:  Family-Based:

Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)

Incredible Years

Nurturing Parenting Programs

Motivational Interviewing

2:  Group-Based:

ACT Raising Safe Kids Program

Chicago Child Parent Center

Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting

3:  Medical-Setting:

Dr.  Gershoff presented information regarding the introduction of No Hit Zones in medical settings (both hospital and outpatient) and reported post-survey data indicating that these areas can help reduce parent use of physical punishment. Dr. Gershoff also cited evidence that “medical settings are important contexts for reducing parent’s support for and use of physical punishment” and that “parents trust their pediatricians for advice on discipline.”

In considering the strategies below, you are working with a family facing imminent loss of child custody due to excessive use of physical punishment. The parents are resistant to outside interference and have a history of dropping out of programs complaining that the various professional staff members don’t understand them, talk down to them, and don’t care about them.

Creating and Implementing Strategies: Example #2

You’ve been asked to assist in identifying an appropriate, accessible program that the parents will agree to enter. In view of the family’s prior history, you’ve concluded that more traditional systems are unlikely to provide a good match.  You’ve decided to visit a number of family-based and/or group-based programs to observe them in action, conduct interviews with staff and participating parents, and hopefully, identify one or more possible enrollment options. You’re especially interested in the following items:

  • To what extent do enrolled parents serve as valued, respected direct intervention agents with their own children in the program setting?
  • To what extent are parent-implemented home programs conducted on a regular basis? Are home program data records collected by the parents at home? How are these records reviewed? Who decides when changes need to be made in those home programs and what those changes should be?
  • Are there regularly scheduled group parent meetings in the program setting? Who leads the discussions?
  • Are more experienced, participating parents expected to help newer parents?

Your purpose is to assess the extent to which client family members are relatively passive recipients of an intervention service or openly valued equal partners in designing and implementing the interventions. Those of us who have degrees and titles associated with our names (typically being paid to work with client family members) would do well to remain cognizant of this somewhat uncomfortable truth:  However learned, sincere, sensitive, and hard-working we may be, there are parents who are infinitely more effective in attracting, supporting, and assisting struggling parents than we can ever be. Other parents within the group might have the capacity to say things like, “I know exactly how that feels, let me tell you what happened with us.”  Or, “This program saved our family.” Professionals are often unable to relate to a family on such a personal, experiential level.

A vivid visual image represents the essence of an authentically collaborative partnership. Picture if you will a staff member sitting directly across from a newly enrolled parent as they review home program data. The staff member is wagging her index finger in the direction of the parent as they discuss what has been done, not done, and needs to be done. Now picture a different visual image. That same staff member and parent are sitting side-by-side at that same table examining the same home program data as they discuss what has been done, not done, and needs to be done. No wagging index finger, just mutually respectful colleagues. Finally, picture an even more contrasting visual image. Two parents, one a newly enrolled “client” and one a more experienced parent fulfilling her “payback” commitment to the program are sitting side-by-side at that same table as they review what has been done, not done, and needs to be done.

Matt Timm, Ph.D.

Executive Director (1974-1997)

The Regional Intervention Program (RIP), in Nashville, Tennessee, is a parent-implemented model for the treatment of families of young children with behavioral disorders in continuous operation from June 1969 to the present.  Since 1974  the RIP Expansion Project has guided the establishment and ongoing operation of certified replication sites in Tennessee (n=17), Kentucky (Fort Campbell), Connecticut (West Hartford), Ohio (Cleveland), Iowa (Cedar Rapids), Washington (Yakima), Canada (Brantford), Brazil (Manaus), and Venezuela (Caracas). Detailed information regarding current program sites, research findings, selected readings, plus a 9 minute video overview can be found at: http://ripnetwork.org/.

Director, Early Childhood Programs (1997-2013)

Tennessee Voices for Children, (TVC), was organized in 1986 as a statewide coalition of individuals, agencies, and organizations working together to promote children’s mental health services.  In 1999, the Board of Directors determined that it should be comprised of a minimum of 51% parents and family members whose lives are touched by emotional and behavioral disorders. This step made TVC a truly family-driven organization. TVC strives to meet its mission and goals by providing forums, conferences, education, and training to parents, professionals, policy makers, business and community leaders.   Current components include the Statewide Family Support Network, Early Childhood Consulting Program, Family Connection/System of Care Network, Youth Screen, and Tennessee Healthy Transitions Initiative.  

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