Hugs or hits: what makes children behave better?

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Most of us would agree that we want our children to be well behaved, social and happy - for their own wellbeing and for a more harmonious home life.

In parenting research, they call it "prosocial behavior". But to most of us, it's just when our children behave well, get along with others, and are generally confident and happy.

But how can we help our children to display these prosocial behaviours? Well, research based on a longitudinal study of over 3000 families offers us some insights.

Firstly, here is how they define prosocial behaviour. It's when children:

  • understand other people's feelings
  • are sympathetic when other children are upset
  • can effectively communicate what they want
  • enjoy talking with you
  • are confident with other people
  • will happily play and talk with other kids
  • are interested in many things
  • are proud of things they've done.

The researchers looked at two main ways to encourage these behaviours in children: using hits (physical discipline) or using hugs (warmth and guidance).

Amongst some parents, physical discipline or spanking is believed to be an effective form of disciplining children and encouraging them to behave better. But is it? Or is using positive reinforcement, and responding clearly to the child a better way to encourage prosocial behaviour?

Previous research has found that spanking can lead to undesirable outcomes, like children being more aggressive and also antisocial. Parental warmth, in contrast, has been found to help create more trust between a child and parent and, therefore, fewer behavioural problems.

But what did this study find? Well, they found that hugs helped children to become socially competent, and hits were associated with more aggressive behaviour. This research found that spanking did not help children to behave better – instead, it was associated with children being more easily frustrated, jealous, selfish, defiant and disobedient.

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In contrast, responding to your child and providing guidance about good behaviour was more likely to lead to positive behaviour in children.

Why might physical punishment not work? Because physical punishment tends to model aggression as a way to deal with conflict, and children often don't receive guidance about what is better behaviour when they are being punished. All they experience is the punishment.

And does being warm and loving mean your child will always behave well? Well, no, of course not. Parents' warmth doesn't guarantee that children will be perfectly behaved, but it does mean they have more of an opportunity to learn those prosocial behaviours.

And what happens if parents use both hugs and hits? The parents' warmth seems to be undermined by the use of physical punishment.

Here is yet another study that shows that spanking isn't a good way to discipline children. They found that it was linked to more defiance rather than compliance. Instead, being warm and responsive with children was more likely to lead to their cooperation and their ability to get along with others.

Jodie Benveniste is a psychologist, parenting author and intuitive parenting specialist. You can get your free gift 'Unlocking the secrets of intuitive parenting' at jodiebenveniste.com.