Gentle Discipline

Effective Discipline – What the Studies Say

There are so many 'discipline techniques' making their way around parent circles – time out, time in, removing privileges, rewards, distraction, and of course spanking. So I thought I'd see what the studies have to say to try to get some definitive answers. Though the studies didn't cover all of those techniques, the most important message I got out of these studies was this:
Success in discipline depends on how you interpret your childs behavior – do you view their behavior as developmentally normal, or hostile and aggressive?
Parents who view their childs behavior as hostile are likely to overreact and dish out harsher punishment, making the child feel ashamed, humiliated and disliked (see below chart). Parents who view a childs behavior as developmentally normal are likely to be nurturing even if they still dish out punishment, which counteracts the feelings of exclusion or shame. It's important to remember ALL childrens behaviors are developmentally normal reactions to their environment.
According to the studies the most effective form of discipline was this:

Adopt a specific, habitual, method of responding, that involves...
1. Pausing to set aside your own moral judgments of your childs behavior.
2. Rephrasing your childs behaviour as 'undesired but developmentally normal'.
3. Focusing on giving reprimands that are:
- Immediate
- Firm
- Short
- Teaching
- Nurturing
- Consistent

How we implement this in real life…
  • Situation: Jamie, who is 2 years old, is hitting another child.
  • Set aside the moral judgment that Jamie is 'naughty' or 'bad'.
  • Remember Jamies hitting is undesired but developmentally normal.
  • Immediately reprimand Jamie for his hitting, using a firm voice.
  • Make the reprimand nice and short.
  • Use words that teach Jamie to understand why hitting is an undesired behavior. Example: "We don't hit, hitting hurts!"
  • Show love and nurturing to Jamie by giving him a hug or kiss after the reprimand.
  • Consistently reprimand Jamie in this way every time he hits.

The studies revealed many other factors that played a role in effective discipline:

Work together with your partner
Preschoolers are less aggressive in cohesive families versus families in which alliances are formed.

Don't just distract, reprimand
Reprimands are significantly more effective than using distraction in controlling children's undesired behaviour.

Deliver immediate, short, firm reprimands, but still be very nurturing
Reprimands that are immediate, short, and firm, are far more effective at controlling undesired behavior compared with reprimands that are delayed, long, and gentle. A very nurturing attitude also helps to lessen undesired behaviour alongside immediate, short, firm reprimands.

Reprimand in a 'teaching' manner
A 'teaching' based reprimand style is not only more effective than a 'power' based reprimand, it also bears the more positive outcomes in child self-concept, social competence, and cognitive maturation.

Don't be too authoritarian
'Power-based' reprimands are related to children not being able to make decisions for themselves (self-regulatory behavior) when it comes to limit setting.

Reprimands must be consistent
If your reprimands are inconsistent – you reprimand an undesired behavior half of the time, but then ignore or cater to the behavior the rest of the time – not only will your efforts be ineffective, the child's behaviour will become worse.

Be careful not to overreact
When parents overreact, dishing out harsher than normal punishment, children's aggression and misbehavior worsens.

Be careful what you attribute your child's undesired behavior to
Parents often overreact to children's behaviour that they're not accustomed to, but as parents become accustomed to the behavior, their attitude softens and they view the behavior as 'normal'. This is classic in families where the eldest child cops it hard, but subsequent siblings get off a lot easier as parents become more relaxed with typical childhood behavior.

Find solutions for the stress in your life
Depression, marital discord and an unsupportive family are known to cause parents to overreact to their children's behavior.

Take it easy on the older children
Interestingly, parents are more likely to believe a child's behaviour is hostile as the child gets older.

Remember your 'power' over your child will weaken as they get older
When a child is young they rely on their parents almost entirely, and because of this parents can get away with manipulating their kids to do what they want - such as making them feel ashamed or disliked, taking away toys, putting them in time out. But as a child reaches adolescence, they will become more independent and develop their own social circle. The parents will no longer be the child's only source of influence and emotional support. Unless a strong bond has already been developed between parent and child, the child will find alternative support in others instead. At this stage whether your child complies with what you ask is largely dependent on whether you have earned their trust.

What about time-out?
On it's own, time-out doesn't teach a child specifically what they did wrong, why it was wrong, and what they should have done instead. The study 'Young children's perceptions of time out' in the The Journal of Research in Childhood Education reveals some interesting insights into the use of time-outs:
  • The fact that fewer than half of the young children queried could accurately recall what they had done that resulted in their placement in time out, raises doubts that these preschoolers were mulling over their misbehavior, generating feelings of guilt, or pondering alternative desirable responses. What is more likely is that these children are withdrawing or acting out in other even more undesirable ways. With little direct tuition provided by adults to children regarding the specific misbehavior to correct, it is hard to imagine that the children will not misbehave again.
  • Despite recommendations that time out be reserved for occasions when the child is wildly out of control or an imminent threat to other children, it appears that time out is being used largely for reasons of noncompliance that give immediate irritation to caregivers.
  • Indeed, many children are receiving time out for trivial reasons, thus confirming the observation that time out is a seductively easy reinforcing technique for harried caregivers, who may be eager to get a noncompliant child "out of their hair" for a few moments.
  • It appears that the consequences of time out may be punitive rather than instructional. Children who perceived themselves to be in time out often liked time out less and felt more isolated, sad, scared, and disliked by their peers. These harshly negative self-attributions again appear to confirm the punitive effects of time out when employed with the preschool child, especially the child who is frequently in time out.
  • Time out can have unintended consequences. Time out can lead to increases in other maladaptive behaviors. Some young children may indeed feel anxious and hurt by the practice.
  • There is speculation that time out may be hurtful in a number of ways. If the child perceives it as a punishment, time out can have serious side effects that are commonly associated with punishment, including increases of other maladaptive behaviors and withdrawal from or avoidance of the adults administering time out.
  • Furthermore, when escape is impossible, some young children are apt to withdraw and become passive. Because of the young child's limited knowledge and experience, he or she may ultimately feel anxious, rejected, hurt, and humiliated as a result of time out. Given their social inexperience, young children tend to internalize negative labels, see themselves as they are labeled, and react accordingly.
  • Time out is a "dead end" for young children at the threshold of social development. Instead, the preschool-age child, who is wrestling with egocentrism and with limited knowledge of social relations, would probably benefit from social skill modeling and instruction.
  • Critics of time out acknowledge that the practice can reduce undesirable behavior; they lament, however, that time out fails to teach desirable behavior.
What about spanking?
Apart from the fact spanking also doesn't teach a child specifically what they did wrong, why it was wrong, and what they should have done instead, spanking is associated with damaging consequences. Below is an excerpt from the American Association of Pediatrics document, Guidance for Effective Discipline, outlining the damaging consequences associated with spanking:
  • Spanking children younger than18 months of age increases the chance of physical injury, and the child is unlikely to understand the connection between the behavior and the punishment.
  • Spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to conflict.
  • Spanking results in a child behaving more aggressively. Although spanking may result in a reaction of shock by the child and cessation of the undesired behavior, repeated spanking may cause agitated, aggressive behavior in the child that may even lead to physical altercation between parent and child. When controlling for baseline antisocial behavior, the more 3- to 6-year-old children were hit, the worse their behavior when assessed 2 years later. Spanking of preschool boys by fathers with whom the child identified only moderately or little resulted in increased aggressive behavior by those children.
  • The more children are hit, the more anger they report as adults, the more they hit their own children when they are parents, the more likely they are to approve of hitting and to actually hit their spouses, and the greater their marital conflict.
  • Spanking and threats of spanking lead to negatively altered parent–child relationships. This makes discipline substantially more difficult when physical punishment is no longer an option, such as with adolescents. 
  • Spanking makes the use of other discipline strategies less effective. Time-out and positive reinforcement of other behaviors are more difficult to implement and take longer to become effective when spanking has previously been a primary method of discipline.
  • Spanking is likely to increase in frequency. Because spanking may provide the parent some relief from anger, the likelihood that the parent will spank the child in the future is increased.
  • Parents who spank are more likely to use harsher forms of corporal punishment. When punishment fails, parents who rely on corporal punishment tend to increase the intensity of its use rather than to change strategies. Parents who spank are also more likely to use other forms of corporal punishment and a greater variety of verbal and other punitive methods.
  • Parents are more likely to spank their children when they're angry, irritable, depressed, fatigued, and stressed. In 44% of those surveyed, corporal punishment was used 50% of the time because the parent had lost it. Approximately 85% expressed moderate to high anger, remorse, and agitation while punishing their children.These findings challenge most the notion that parents can spank in a calm, planned manner. It is best not to administer any punishments while in a state of anger.
  • Parents who spank their young children are likely to continue spanking them info adolescene. More than half of 13- and 14-year-olds are still being hit an average eight times per year. Parents who have relied on spanking do not seem to shift strategies when the risks of detrimental effects increase with developmental age, as has been argued.
  • Spanking older children and adolescents has been associated with higher rates of physical aggression, more substance abuse, and increased risk of crime and violence.
  • Corporal punishment in two-parent, middle class families occurred weekly in 25%, was associated with the use of an object occasionally in 35% and half of the time in 17%, caused considerable pain at times in 12%, and inflicted lastingmarks at times in 5%. Thus, striking children in the abusive range is neither rare nor confined to families of lower socioeconomic class, as has been asserted.
  • Although children may view spanking as justified and symbolic of parental concern for them, they rate spanking as causing some or much pain in more than half of cases and generally experience anger at the adult as a result. Despite this, children come to accept spanking as a parent's right at an early age, making changes in adult acceptance of spanking more difficult.
  • Although 93% of parents justify spanking, 85% say that they would rather not if they had an alternative in which they believed. One study found that 54% of mothers said that spanking was the wrong thing to have done in at least half of the times they used it. This ambivalence likely results in inconsistent use, which limits further its effectiveness as a teaching tool.
  • Although spanking has been shown to be effective as a back-up to enforce a time-out location, it was not more effective than use of a barrier as an alternative.
  • Actions causing pain such as spanking can acquire a positive value rather than the intended adversive value. Children who expect pain may actually seek it through escalating misbehaviors.
For more information on the ideology and effects of spanking, and gentle discipline techniques:
Spanking and Punishment: Does it 'work'?
Why not smack?


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