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Claire McCarthy, M.D.

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How To Discipline -- Without Spanking

Posted: 07/03/2012 4:50 pm

Discipline -- it's one of the hardest parts of parenthood. We want to keep our kids safe, and teach them right from wrong. But doing that is often much more difficult than it sounds.

Spanking is what many parents turn to when they want to get their point across. However, spanking and other forms of physical punishment can lead to mental health problems, aggression, and even a lower IQ -- not stuff most parents want for their kids. And, it turns out, it's actually not more effective than other methods.

In the wake of yet another study showing the harms of spanking, many parents are asking: what can we do instead? As a pediatrician, this is something I talk to parents about a lot.

Discipline, like the Latin word discipla it comes from, is really about teaching and learning, not punishment. Here are some things I tell all parents to do:

  • Start early. It may be cute when your toddler hits, but it's going to be confusing to him when he's 5 and suddenly you tell him to stop.

  • Set rules and standards of behavior, so that your kid always understands why she's being punished.

  • Understand where your kid is developmentally. An infant isn't trying to hurt you when he bites; a toddler isn't being naughty when she breaks something out of curiosity. Know what your child is capable of understanding and doing.

  • Don't set your kid (or yourself) up. No kid can behave well when he is hungry or tired, for example -- that's not the time to go somewhere where good behavior is needed.

  • Set a good example (kids pay more attention to what we do than what we say).

  • If you feel yourself getting to your boiling point (we all get there), take a break. Put your child somewhere safe, and take a moment for yourself.

Okay -- now to methods.

Saying "No." I know that sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't be) by how often parents don't do this when they should. If you react immediately, consistently, and firmly to bad behavior -- with eye contact and a clear, stern tone of voice -- it can be remarkably effective, especially if you start early.

Time-out. This is the most mentioned method for young children -- and one that many people misunderstand or do incorrectly. The basic idea is that immediately after the offense (if you wait even a few minutes, they may have forgotten what they did) you put the child in a boring (safe) place away from the action and away from your attention. The child should stay there for roughly one minute for every year of age (so a 2-year-old stays for two minutes).

What I often hear from parents is that their child won't stay in time-out. I tell them to pick them up and put them back in it -- let them know you mean business. However, if that doesn't work and you spend the whole time putting them back in, it ends up defeating the purpose -- because you are supposed to be taking attention away, not giving more of it. For those kids (I had one), you might want to consider putting the child in his room or his crib instead. There are people who say that you don't want the sleep space to be a punishment space, and that's a good point -- but really, it's the equivalent of being sent to your room. Which can be effective for kids of all ages -- and gives parents a much-needed breather.

Taking toys away (or other favorite things, like Xboxes or cell phones). This works for preschool and older. Take away something that matters to them for a defined period of time. I would not recommend taking away things they rely on for comfort, like the favorite blankie. Letting them know ahead of time that you will do it if they don't behave can be an incentive to behave (in general, giving kids a warning is a good idea -- it gives them a chance to make a better choice).

Taking away privileges, like watching TV. Same idea. Pick something that really matters to them. My personal preference is that you not take away healthy things like sports teams, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.

Grounding. This is good for older kids, tweens and older, for whom social interaction is everything. In these days of texting and social media, you might need to confiscate the phone and laptop too if the goal really is to separate them from friends. Tailor the degree and length of grounding to the offense.

A tip I learned from a friend: sometimes it's best not to mete out the punishment in the moment. She taught me to say: "There will be consequences" (or just "Consequences" when in public). It gives you time to calm down, hear all sides of the story, and decide the punishment that really fits the crime. You can even include the child in the decision.

Reward good behavior. Discipline doesn't have to be -- and really shouldn't be -- all negative. Make a point of noticing when kids are good. Let them earn recognition and privileges for doing the things you want them to do. Make it worth their while to behave well -- it often works better than you expect.

Remember that nothing will work if you aren't consistent -- "no" always has to mean no. If you are wishy-washy, kids will be confused -- and see it as an opportunity. You may need to pick your battles, especially with young kids, so you don't spend your entire day saying "no."

It's also crucial that you follow through on any punishment you threaten, or your threats become empty ones that are easily ignored. (That's why I like the "consequences" approach so much -- it allows me to avoid punishments that don't fit the crime or are highly inconvenient.)

Sometimes none of this works. There are lots of reasons why, like learning disabilities, mental health issues or family stress. Sometimes there isn't a clear reason. Either way, parents should ask for help. Parenthood is hard work; none of us should have to do such hard work alone.

 

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