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Disciplining Children: What is the Right Thing to do?

By Lois M. Collins:

Experts say parents most often react when a child misbehaves, which is a “negative bias” that doesn’t encourage children to do what they should. Instead, they suggest trying tactics professionals use, including consequences for misbehavior.

“What can be more effective are techniques that psychologists often use with the most difficult kids, including children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder,” wrote the Wall Street Journal‘s Andrea Petersen. “Approaches, with names like ‘parent management training’ and ‘parent-child interaction therapy,’ are backed up by hundreds of research studies and they work on typical kids, too. But while some of the approaches’ components find their way into popular advice books, the tactics remain little known among the general public.”

Parenting experts recommend choosing what you want to have happen, rather than what you want to prevent. Praise those behaviors to reinforce them. When a child is failing to obey or behave, “Parents should use mild negative consequences (a short timeout or verbal reprimand without shouting),” Petersen wrote.

“Lack of compliance has both short- and long-term costs and is a leading reason why parents seek mental health services for children,” according to the abstract of a new study, published in the journal Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. “What parents do to help children comply with directives or rules is an important part of child socialization.”

Clinicians looked at 41 different studies, focusing on the relationship between different discipline techniques and whether it prompted children to obey. The children’s ages ranged from 1-1/2 to 11 years old. “Reprimand and negative, nonverbal responses consistently resulted in greater compliance. Praise and positive nonverbal responses resulted in mixed child outcomes,” the study noted.

For example, hugs and rewards didn’t lead to better behavior in the short term. Being corrected or getting “negative” nonverbal responses like lost privileges and stern looks did improve a child’s compliance in the short term. Being praised often and warmly did improve the likelihood a child would comply in general and over time.

Consequences should be given, but should not be overdone, the researchers from Stony Brook University said. Both overly harsh punishments and “attempts to reason” with a child typically fail.

Besides being fodder for studies, the to-dos and don’t-dos of disciplining children are the subject of thousands of books and hundreds of articles, and many of them contradict each other.

“There’s a lot of fear around punishment out there,” Daniela J. Owen, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Cognitive Therapy in Oakland, Calif. and the lead author of the study, told the Wall Street Journal.

Parenting magazine recently came out with a list titled “eight discipline mistakes parents make.” They included a parent telling a so-called white lie to get a child to do what the parent desires, backing down, overusing bribery, breaking the rules the child is told to follow and loss of temper, among others.

Many pediatric groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, carve out physical punishment as being a particularly egregious approach to child-rearing.

“Disciplining your child is not easy, but it is a vital part of good parenting. The AAP recommends a three-step approach toward effective child discipline,” according to its website.

“First, establish a positive, supporting and loving relationship with your child. Without this foundation, your child has no reason, other than fear, to demonstrate good behavior. Second, use positive reinforcement to increase the behavior you want from your child. Third, if you feel discipline is necessary, the AAP recommends that you do not spank or use other physical punishments. That only teaches aggressive behavior, and becomes ineffective if used often. Instead, use appropriate time outs for young children. Discipline older children by temporarily removing favorite privileges, such as sports activities or playing with friends. If you have questions about disciplining your children, talk with your pediatrician.”

Principles and Practices of Effective Discipline,” a report from Phoenix Children’s Hospital, emphasizes the goal of guiding instead of punishing, giving children choices so they can practice making good ones when possible and making sure that consequences are logical and explained. The author, Elizabeth Gershoff, also suggests what she calls “teaching time-outs” in which a child is to think of a plan to improve behavior in order to get out. If the process drags beyond a few minutes, though, she noted, it’s important to help the child craft a plan. Consistency is also key.

Gershoff said research has shown that physical punishment is not only not effective, but that it “makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future.”

In “The Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effect on Children,” she wrote that “…there is substantial research evidence that physical punishment puts children at risk for negative outcomes, including increased aggression, antisocial behavior, mental health problems and physical injury. The clear connections between physical abuse and physical punishment that have been made in empirical research and in the child abuse statutes of several states suggest that reduction in parents’ use of physical punishment should be included as integral parts of state and federal child abuse prevention efforts.”

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Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Photopin, CC

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