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There has been a lot of attention recently on the abuse of children at the hands of their parents. The issue seems to be focused on this question: When does discipline cross the line and become child abuse?

Within the U.S., physical punishment has a long history of public acceptance. Many Americans might be surprised to learn, however, that hitting children in many other developed countries is illegal. For a majority of Americans, however, there is nothing wrong with hitting children in the name of discipline.

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I did my doctoral dissertation on the issues related to child abuse in America. This research brought several things to light on the topic. First, parents tend to discipline their children in the manner in which their parents disciplined them. This is what they observed growing up and, unless they have learned another way, this is how they tend to discipline their children when they become parents. Thus, if you grow up within a culture of hitting children as the primary means of discipline, you are more likely to hit your own children. If we want parents to practice more acceptable and effective disciplinary strategies, these strategies and their benefits need to be taught.

The second thing I learned is that hitting children is a very ineffective disciplinary strategy which has many unintended negative consequences. For example, children who are hit by their parents are more likely to be aggressive toward other children; they have learned from their parents that aggression is an acceptable response when angry. If parents respond to stress and anger by striking out, their children are likely to do the same.

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There are many alternatives to hitting children. Reinforce your children when they do the right thing. Teach them that good behavior, not inappropriate behavior, earns your attention. Second, have a simple and consistent consequence for inappropriate behavior. For example, removing (pick one) the child's phone, car, computer, television, iPod or time with friends, are all possible consequences. This will vary by child, of course. Children have so many things these days and parents should use these things to motivate their children when necessary.

Importantly, the key to any effective discipline is consistency, not harshness or duration. A consistent punishment of removing a young child's favorite toy or a teenager's phone or car for just one evening is more effective than a parent harshly flying off the handle.

The biggest mistake I see today is that some parents are inconsistent in their expectations and discipline. After allowing a child to be repeatedly non-compliant or inappropriate, the inconsistent parent resorts to physical punishment after becoming frustrated and angry. Yet, it was the parent's inconsistency that taught the child that he could occasionally get away with inappropriate behavior in the first place. In many cases, parents actually teach their children to become non-compliant by telling them to do something and then not following through when the child does not comply. Thus, the child learns that it is not important to listen to his parents.

Instead of hitting a child, make a list of all the things your child loves to do (talk on the phone to friends, play games on the computer, access keys to the car, and so on). Use these items to reinforce your child when he does what you want (homework, doing well in school, doing his chores) for that day. Tomorrow starts another day to earn more privileges.

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Avoid telling your child to do something repeatedly. Tell him once. If you don't get an appropriate response the first time, he does not earn his privileges for that evening. Also, yelling and lecturing are not necessary and are actually counterproductive. These lead to negotiation and arguing, which lead to noncompliance.

In summary, reinforce appropriate behavior, consistently punish inappropriate behavior by the removal of privileges, avoid yelling and negotiating with your children and avoid physical punishment. Teach your children more effective ways of dealing with anger and frustration, and break the cycle of violence.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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