Family, Parenting

Discipline (Part I): What Works? What Doesn’t?

No naughty chairs allowed!
No naughty chairs allowed!

No naughty chairs allowed!

Although some people still adhere to the adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” there is growing awareness that disciplining kids doesn’t have to be punitive. In fact, disciplining kids should not be harsh, whether that is by physical means or overly stringent loss of privileges. (“You’re grounded for a month!”)

Some popular discipline methods backfire or are ineffective at the very least. Not knowing any other strategies, sometimes parents dig in their heels on an unproductive consequence (“Did I say no video games for one month? I mean for one year!”)

The root of the word discipline means “to teach,” not “I’m bigger than you so I will intimidate you into acting the way I want.”

Here’s what everyone can probably agree upon: as parents, we want to develop certain behaviors in our kids, and discourage others. It’s the method we employ in that pursuit that varies.

Study after study demonstrates that spanking is not the way to go. Not only is spanking ineffective, it is linked to all sorts of negative outcomes. Increased aggression and lower self-esteem are just the tip of the iceberg.

You probably already know that nagging doesn’t work, either. Children seem to be born with an innate ability to tune parents out.

What might be a surprise is that withholding privileges is also not useful, if this is your main method. With a strong-willed child, you might find that you quickly back your way into a corner. Consequence after consequence and loss of privileges can snowball until your child is sleeping on a mat in a stripped-down bedroom. Whose will is stronger? Watch the epic battle!

Even without going that far, the mood of your home becomes negative. Your relationship with your child is affected.

When it’s used occasionally and in a thoughtful way, though, withholding privileges can be helpful. It is like garlic: a little bit goes a long way. Research tells us that taking away a privilege for a short period of time — like one day — works as well as a longer time. Psychologist Alan E. Kazdin of Yale University (author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child) emphasizes that the punishment should happen right after the child’s negative behavior. Pairing the punishment quickly after the child’s behavior is is more important than how long the privilege is forbidden.

What else can a parent do?

Natural consequences are great teaching tools. If you drop a ball off the top of a building, the natural consequence is that it will fall to the ground.

How does that translate to children?

Boy with backbackLet’s say your daughter tends to forget to pack her school homework. If you bring it to her at school, she learns that it isn’t important to remember it herself. As a parent, work with her on planning ahead by having her prepare her backpack in advance. Then, if she still forgets her homework, let her suffer a missing assignment. The natural consequence to not turning in homework is a lower grade for the day.

She will live through this. If you have a perfectionistic streak, it may be harder on you. I assure you, you will also live through this. The take-home is that your daughter learns that she must be responsible for one thing — packing up her homework — to attain what she wants (good grades) and/or avoid what she doesn’t want (bad grades).

dunce cap, sitting in the corner, time out

Time-outs are popular, but typically implemented in a way that doesn’t help your child. Too often, parents use time-outs as punishment instead of a way to help your child calm down. Fair disclosure: I have been guilty of this, when my boys were preschoolers.

The purpose of a time-out is not to punish or isolate your child. It is not about having a “naughty chair” like some media personalities advocate. Rather, taking a time-out is a method to remove your child from an amped-up situation and allow him the space and time to calm down. You may have heard a minute per year of age, which reflects children’s different capacities at different ages. Some parents even create a lovely, calming area in their home for time-outs.

Teaching your child how to create an environment to calm down and redirect his energy is a great lifelong gift. I used to work for a domestic violence agency, and a big part of the work was helping adults learn to take a time-out before a situation escalated.

In the big picture, it is not about punishing your child for a negative behavior. It is about redirecting energy and teaching which behavior is expected instead. Children really are learning about the world, and we often unfairly expect them to act like mini adults.

Praise is also a great discipline tools when used properly. Unfortunately, is often used too generally and without much thought.

I will cover how to use praise effectively with your child in my next post. Stay tuned.