What Does the Latest Research Say About Disciplining Kids?

If you are a parent, you know that kids don’t come with a handbook. And while there are books out there on ways to discipline your kids, sometimes those books are based more on opinion than fact. Discipline can mean different things to different people. In this blog, I will talk about the most common forms of discipline used in the United States, as well as what the current research says about the effectiveness and impact of each type of discipline.

Physical Discipline: You may have heard of the old saying “spare the rod, spoil the child.” This was a common expression a couple generations ago that basically states the belief that spanking or hitting your child would improve their behavior, and that NOT spanking them would actually spoil them. However, decades of research demonstrates otherwise.

In 2002, a meta-analysis was published in the Psychological Bulletin, which examined the impact of physical punishment in terms of reduction in negative behavior and other social and emotional outcomes across numerous studies over 50 decades. The data indicates that children who are spanked tend to be more defiant of their parents’ wishes, not less! They also tend to struggle with more antisocial behaviors, aggression, mental health issues, and learning difficulties. In summary – physical discipline doesn’t work and may lead to long term behavioral and emotional issues.

Attention – Positive versus Negative: Kids crave attention, and they will get it anyway they can. Essentially, every child has an “attention cup” that needs to be filled every day. Positive attention fills the cup quickly. Negative attention also fills the cup, but it takes a lot longer, which ends up being very draining and stressful for both the parent and the child.

What do I mean by negative and positive attention? Positive attention is praising your child for when they behave well and do the things you want them to do. This can look like a simple “good job,” or it can be specific, such as “Thank you for cleaning your room. It looks great!” Research shows that positive attention and “catching your child being good” increases positive behavior, as well as your child’s internal motivation to make good choices.

Negative attention can be making passive-aggressive or cutting remarks, yelling, engaging in arguments, etc. This typically has a negative impact on the child’s social and emotional development. Negative attention can also be providing attention to negative situations. For example, if every time your child throws a toy you take her aside, talk to her, cuddle her, reassure her, you may actually be reinforcing the very behavior you are trying to avoid! If your child’s goal is to get your attention, then that goal has been achieved!

Consequences and Rewards: Often parents will take things away from their children, as a result of poor behavior. This can sometimes be effective depending on a number of things, including what is taken away and the child’s level of motivation to get the restricted item or activity back. But, there are a number of factors that can reduce the effectiveness of negative consequences.

Again, the research indicates that providing positive reinforcement for a job well done is more impactful than negative consequences for poor behavior. Of course, that is not to say that one should ignore your child’s negative behavior and has a consequence-free household! However, oftentimes negative behavior can be avoided if you are able to provide your child rewards or incentives for making the right choice from the start.

Timeout: Even within the field of psychology, there has been some debate around the effectiveness of timeout. Sometimes timeout can be helpful and sometimes it doesn’t seem to do anything! In 2014 the American Psychological Association published an article tackling myths around timeout, and also how to make timeout an effective parenting tool. The key to an effective timeout is how it is done.

To learn more about effective use of timeout and common timeout myths, check out this article from the American Psychological Association: https://psychologybenefits.org/2014/12/10/what-every-parent-should-know-about-timeouts/

References:
Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4), 539-570.