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REAL LIFE

Nobody Said Spanking Is the Only Way to Go

February 11, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Now that the state Assembly has defeated two measures that would have restored corporal punishment to California classrooms and courts, adults must continue the bothersome search for alternatives to spanking children.

It's not easy. The history of spanking goes back to the Bible, at least. Everybody knows what it is and how to do it.

The alternative techniques that sprang up with Dr. Benjamin Spock in the middle of this century range from ignoring bad behavior to rewarding good behavior, logical consequences and grounding children. Not everyone knows what these techniques are, nor how to best use them.

Time out, for instance, a favorite alternative for preschoolers, is among the most misunderstood ways of dealing with misbehavior, says Ellen Junn, Cal State Fullerton associate professor of child development.

"Most parents and preschool teachers use it like punishment, like Dennis the Menace sitting in the corner with a dunce cap," she says. "It doesn't teach the child anything new. It just teaches that he did something bad, and just causes a lot of resentment."

Time out is supposed to be a way to give children time to get control of their emotions, so they can talk to the adults about what happened and learn how and why to prevent it in the future. Junn prefers calling it "cool down."

Some experts say time out means that misbehaving children should sit on a bench or chair for the number of minutes that corresponds to their age. If they get up, more minutes are added.

But Junn says that because all children are different and even the same child can be different from day to day, setting a rigid time limit isn't helpful. Instead, she says parents can lead a child to a room that is safe and has few distractions and say, " 'OK, when you're calm, I'll open the door and you can come out and I'll give you a hug and we'll talk.' " Some may take longer than others.

Junn says that when her 5-year-old daughter comes out, often sobbing, Junn asks her, " 'So, what happened here?' There might be real, rational reasons in their minds why that happened. You talk about why the behavior was a problem and how you can correct it. At that point, you can ask the child for their suggestion, how to solve the problem or correct the behavior."

Like adults caught in an angry misunderstanding, children might not feel like talking about it then. They can make a promise to talk about it later when they're happier.

Like other techniques, time out has its limits. Marilouise Uranga Carlisle of Rancho Santa Margarita says time out suddenly stopped working with son Jackson after he turned 5. Now, she says, she threatens to take away his favorite toys or she uses the cold shoulder treatment. "He's extremely social. We say, 'We won't talk to you if you don't know how to talk nicely.' It's a real killer to him."

She says she and her husband are committed to finding alternatives to spanking, but the challenge is constant. "I'd love to talk about everything if I had the time to do it," she says. "I come home, I'm tired and it's really difficult to be rational when you're tired and everybody's hungry and your child is misbehaving."

The bottom line is that parents who want to avoid spanking need a whole repertoire of techniques to use in different situations, Junn says.

No matter which techniques they try, they should use them as a last resort if they have been unable to prevent misbehavior through distractions or altering the environment. Expectations and consequences should be clear. Love and understanding should be abundant.

"Another way to think of it," Junn says, "is to go back to the word 'discipline.' " The root word is "disciple," she says, and children are followers or students of their parents.

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