Thu 15 Oct, 2009

Discipline in Context

Families' disciplinary practices for children aged under five

Family disciplinary practices have been a controversial topic of debate for centuries, and they are known to have a lifelong effect on the wellbeing of children.

This Families Commission report provided a snapshot of the views, experiences and practices of a sample 100 New Zealand families, relating to the discipline of their pre-school children. Parents and caregivers were asked what they believed about discipline, how they disciplined their children and the type of support and stress that they experienced with parenting. The study also looked at the effect of child and family characteristics and context, over time, on discipline.

The project used a semi-structured method, with parents keeping diaries of their day to day disciplinary practices. Most parents in the sample viewed discipline as a means of teaching children about the boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, though about a third identified discipline with punishment. The majority of parents were authoritative in their approach to parenting, combining warmth with firm boundaries. About one in 10 parents described themselves as taking a permissive approach and an even smaller minority (3.4 percent) said they used authoritarian methods (demanding obedience without explanation). While more than a third of parents interviewed said that they smacked, our diary data suggest that this use was very infrequent.

Within Aotearoa New Zealand a change seems to be occurring whereby violence against children within the family is far less tolerated than it used to be. While over a third of those surveyed still used physical punishment, there were very few participants in our study who were positive about its use. This change could be influenced by the wealth of literature concerning parenting techniques now available, from dedicated parenting magazines and internet resources through to television shows like ‘SuperNanny’. Recent initiatives at the government level include law changes such as the introduction of the Child Discipline Bill in 2007, and a media campaign against family violence, and may also be turning the tide.

Finally, professionals still play a critical role in shaping attitudes towards child discipline, with the support of ECE teachers and Plunket nurses especially valued. While we do have many parenting programmes in New Zealand, there is still a gap in access to good professional development programmes. It is vital that we retain and strengthen our commitment to the development of high-quality support services for children and families.

This report was prepared for the Families Commission Blue Skies Fund by Julie Lawrence and Anne B Smith, University of Otago College of Education.