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The Benefits of Positive Parenting
Is there a science to parenting?
For all the current discussion in the United States about gun violence and mental illness, there has been little attention paid to root causes. Any effort aiming to reduce gun violence — or child abuse, intimate partner violence, suicide or sexual abuse — must include a serious discussion about how society can improve the quality of parenting.
In 2010, children’s protective service agencies investigated 1.8 million referrals of child abuse and neglect pertaining to 3 million children. Although only 20 percent of these were substantiated, researchers report that physical abuse, including harsh physical discipline that is equivalent to abuse, is vastly underreported and may be 20 times more prevalent than is reflected in official statistics. (In other countries, including Spain, India and Egypt, harsh punishment is even more prevalent.) In Philadelphia, this behavior has recently been linked to the recession and the rate of mortgage foreclosures. When lenders put people out of their homes, one unforeseen consequence is that more kids end up with traumatic brain injuries.
It is now well accepted that physical discipline is not only less effective than other non-coercive methods, it is more harmful than has often been understood — and not just to children. A review of two decades worth of studies has shown that corporal punishment is associated with antisocial behavior and aggression in children, and later in life is linked to depression, unhappiness, anxiety, drug and alcohol use and psychological maladjustment. Beyond beating, parents can also hurt children by humiliating them, labeling them in harmful ways (“Why are you so stupid?”), or continually criticizing their behavior.
Improving the way people parent might seem an impossible challenge, given the competing views about what constitutes good parenting. Can we influence a behavior that is rooted in upbringing and culture, affected by stress, and occurs mainly in private? And even if we could reach large populations with evidence-based messages the way public health officials got people to quit smoking, wear seat belts or apply sunscreen, would it have an impact?
The Triple P Program has evolved over the past 35 years. It focuses on families with children under age 12 and has shown efficacy in numerous studies. It started as a home visiting program, but researchers found it too expensive to deliver more widely, so they looked for ways to broaden its reach – to get good parenting into the water supply. “You know how vast Australia is,” explains Matthew Sanders, Triple P’s founder. “Our question was how do we ensure that all families, regardless of where they lived, could access good quality evidence-based parenting interventions.” Sanders experimented with different dissemination techniques, including telephone consultations, and found that they could do just as well as face-to-face meetings.
What’s notable about Triple P is that it pursues a community-wide, preventive approach. Sanders believes that all parents would benefit from some education — though some need a light touch while others need significant help. And why would it be otherwise? Unlike driving a truck or teaching, no one needs a permit to become a parent.
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