By María Caridad Araujo. 

I recently read a reflection written by Brittney Cooper, an American college professor, in which she shared a personal anecdote. In the piece, she told of how once, while riding the subway in Washington, D.C., she observed a white child climbing on the seats and hanging from the bars of the train. The child’s mother did and said nothing. The author speculated on the attitude of the mother and the reaction that mothers of other ethnicities may have had. For example, what would an Argentinian, Mexican or Panamanian mother do in a similar situation?

This story came to mind when I read the post “The Fine Line in the Practice and Acceptance of Corporal Punishment,” which reported rather alarming data on the frequency of severe physical punishment of children in Latin America and the Caribbean. I thought about how many of our attitudes and behaviors are shaped by the culture that surrounds us and promotes or rewards certain types of children’s behavior such as obedience or meekness.

There are several initiatives in the region that seek to work with families to improve parenting practices, with the handling of discipline usually figuring as one of the main topics. The positive discipline approach has gained popularity among educators and psychologists in recent years.  Positive discipline aims to teach and reinforce positive behaviors. It emphasizes that negative behaviors can be eliminated without hurting the child physically or verbally.

What is the potential of programs that seek to improve parenting practices and promote positive discipline tools to effectively change the behavior of parents in their daily interactions with their children? This topic has been little studied, and it deserves a place of greater prominence on the region’s research agenda.

I’d like to venture a hypothesis. Although these programs can play a vital role by raising awareness among parents about the importance of positive discipline and providing them with the tools to handle everyday situations, few of these programs have been rigorously evaluated. What’s more, even if they do have a significant impact, the limited efforts of these programs are insufficient for observing systemic changes.

The cultural environment that largely determines people’s attitudes, preferences and expectations about children’s behavior needs to be reinvented through the incorporation of new ideas. In order for this to happen, it is essential that there be a critical mass of parents, grandparents, neighbors, teachers and other community stakeholders who have internalized different approaches to discipline and childrearing, so as to gradually set the tone for new social norms and cultural practices.

It’s likely that a combination of educational and communication initiatives is required to give our societies the wake-up call they need when it comes to parenting. Based on our culture, what do you think works best in our region? Tell us in the comments section below or on Twitter.

María Caridad Araujo is a lead specialist in the Social Protection and Health Division of the Inter-American Development Bank.

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