Spanking, grounding, and yelling: Does old-fashioned discipline work?

by Sarah Henry

Your kid mouths off for the umpteenth time, and you’ve had it. Gone are your lofty notions of teachable moments. You yell, “Go to your room!” Moments later, as the words echo in your ear, you realize with a shock: I’ve become my mother.

You’re not alone. The knee-jerk reaction when our kids misbehave is often to do exactly what we got as kids. The question is, do these old-school discipline tools stand the test of time?

We asked BabyCenter moms which of your parents’ techniques you’ve used. Then we turned to a panel of experts to find out which are worth keeping in the discipline tool kit and which should be tossed in the trash.

Spanking

According to a BabyCenter poll, 85 percent of you were spanked as kids, and 69 percent of you do the same to your own children. A typical comment: “I was spanked when I deserved it. I think it kept me in line, and I spank my 2-year-old, too.” Many parents say they only hit their child for downright dangerous behavior, like when a toddler runs into the street.

Some parents say a swat on the bottom is an effective discipline tool when all else fails — others call it child abuse. “I remember what I was wearing, how much she hit me, how I resisted, and the crying, pain, anger, and fear,” writes one mom. “I do not remember the lesson or the deed.”

What the experts say…

Toss it Spanking mostly shows that when you’re bigger than someone it’s okay to hit to show your anger or to hit to get your own way. The hurt, not the learning opportunity, becomes the message.

There are three good alternatives: isolation (like a time-out), deprivation (taking away a privilege), and reparation (where a child works to right a wrong before doing anything else). The goal is to get your child to think twice before making the same mistake.
Carl Pickhardt, The Everything Parent’s Guide to Positive Discipline

Toss it Spanking is a temporary solution that does more harm than good. It “works” because it’s external control over a child, but it doesn’t promote internal decision-making. It simply teaches children to behave — or else. Spanking causes many children to focus on the punishment rather than on their poor decision.

Spanking also has side effects. It’s embarrassing, and that causes children to get angry or think about retaliation. Children who are frequently hit feel insecure. Many have poor self-esteem. Some withdraw. Others become excitable, overactive, and aggressive.
Sal Severe, How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!

Toss it How are we going to teach our children it’s not okay to hurt others when we keep hurting them? For 2- to 4-year-olds, lots of supervision along with distraction and redirection are better tools. All the spanking in the world won’t teach a child it isn’t safe to run into a busy street until he’s developmentally ready to learn that lesson.

Some children will push and push until they get a spanking and then settle down. They’ve been conditioned not to settle down or cooperate until they’re spanked. Instead, try holding a disobedient child firmly on your lap. No matter how much she struggles, don’t let go until she calms down or agrees to cooperate.
Jane Nelsen, the Positive Discipline series

Losing privileges

Taking away something fun is a widely used tool for today’s parents, many of whom picked up the habit from their own parents. “When I was naughty, my parents were quick to take away TV time or outings with friends,” says one mom, who now does the same with her own son. “He loses screen time, ice cream, or sleepovers for repeated misbehavior. But I often think he just gets mad, and I wonder if he really learns anything from the experience.”

For today’s parents, the idea of redemption plays an important role. “I almost always give my children the opportunity to earn back a privilege easily and quickly if they acknowledge their error,” says another mom of three.

What the experts say…

Keep it Revoking privileges is helpful when used sparingly. Choose a restriction that’s easy to enforce — like taking toys away or sending your child to bed early — so you follow through. Pick a restriction that impacts the offender and no one else. Don’t punish yourself!

Tell your child why you’re taking something away, and choose a punishment that fits the crime: If your child turns on the TV after you tell him not to, unplug it for the night.

A common mistake is taking away privileges for too long. A week or two can feel like forever to a child. And it can backfire: Kids can get angry and resentful, seek revenge, and a cycle of retaliation begins. Remember: You want to encourage your child to do better next time. The best way is with positive reinforcement. “Great job, you finished all your chores. Now you can play outside until dinner.”
Sal Severe

Keep it Removing privileges is an appropriate consequence for repeated offenses, so long as it’s something your child really cares about. Otherwise, it’s fruitless. Make sure to choose something you have control over — watching TV, playing video games, or riding a bike. Avoid choosing something where your child’s absence negatively affects others, such as soccer practice or a band performance.
Michele Borba, No More Misbehavin’

Toss it Punishment just invites defiance, rebellion, or low self-esteem. If your child breaks something during a tantrum, you could take TV away for a week. But that won’t teach him anything.

Instead, find a way for him to replace or repair the item. That might mean earning the money — even small children can do simple chores — or taking the money out of his piggy bank or allowance. Or perhaps he can sit with you and glue the item back together. This and many other nonpunitive methods are respectful and teach a child important life skills.
Jane Nelsen

Time-outs

Our parents may not have called it a time-out, but make no mistake, they used it. Does “Go to your room” ring a bell? The time-out continues to be a favorite for parents of 2-year-olds, 3- to 4-year-olds, kindergartners, and grade-schoolers. (Parents of younger children may discover the technique doesn’t work well yet.)

But not all time-outs are created equal. Some readers report using gentler methods than their parents did. “I was locked in my room fairly often and pounded on the door for attention. I didn’t find that particularly educational,” says one mom.

Another says, “After a warning, my son is put on the bottom step and is told why he’s in time-out. The idea is for him to think about the choice he made. When it’s over, we discuss why he was put in time-out and what he could do differently.”

What the experts say…

Keep it Time-outs are effective if the child calms down, then thinks and talks about what happened and what he could do differently from now on. The purpose of isolation is not to ostracize or reject a child but to separate him from a problem situation.
Carl Pickhardt

Keep it Time-outs are appropriate when a child is immediately removed for misbehavior and asked to sit alone quietly to think about her actions. It can be very effective at helping aggressive kids calm down.

One caveat: Time-outs should be customized to the age and temperament of your child and the severity of the misbehavior. The simplest rule for kids 3 to 7: Time-out is one minute for each year of the child’s age. Set a timer so the child knows how long she’s expected to remain.

To be effective, you must teach a replacement behavior. After the time-out, ask your kid to draw or write what she did wrong — or simply talk it out, asking her, “What will you do next time?” Older kids can make a statement of intent — a drawing, sentence, or a few lines explaining how they plan to change their behavior.
Michele Borba

Keep it Time-out is recommended when the purpose is positive: To give a child a chance to take a break for a short time and try again as soon as he feels better. This cooling-off period allows a child to “do” better because it gives him a chance to “feel” better. Since the term time-out has so many negative associations, you might ask your child to rename it, something like cooling-off spot or feel-good place.

For very young children, try taking a time-out together in a place that encourages calm and quiet. It may include cushions, a favorite stuffy, or a book to read.
Jane Nelsen

Grounding

The term grounding may make you think of teenagers forced to stay home for breaking curfew. But this technique — really a form of losing privileges — is also used by parents of young children, who say they learned it from their own parents. “When my 3-year-old son talks back or is defiant, we’ll sometimes say, ‘We’re not going to the park if you keep acting this way,'” says one mom.

Another mom, who endured groundings herself growing up, says, “When my son was 6, he was grounded for throwing rocks over the school fence onto parked cars. He didn’t like it, I don’t think I ever did either as a kid. But I never repeated the offense, and, to my knowledge, neither has he.”

What the experts say…

Keep it Like losing privileges, groundings work if the child misses something he cares about — otherwise it’s worthless. For grade-schooler groundings — which generally last one day — require your child to stay home and miss everything other than school, church, or any commitment where her absence would let others down (such as a swim meet or dance performance).

For a serious offense, many parents also pull all home privileges, such as TV, video games, and computer time. It’s a waste of time grounding a 2- or 3-year-old, as they really don’t understand the connection.
Michele Borba

Keep it Most parents choose a grounding period that’s too long. Extended periods can backfire, causing your child to feel persecuted or picked on and starting a negative retaliation cycle. You want to keep hope alive.

To give a child strong incentive to behave immediately, try this: Your 6-year-old has been restricted for six days. For each good day, a day of restriction is dropped from the end. (Clearly define what good day means: Do what you’re asked to do. Speak in a pleasant tone. Be kind and polite to your sister.) You may want to draw a chart or mark the duration on a calendar so your child can cross off days and see his progress.

Keep in mind that you don’t want a grounding to make everyone else in the family miserable, and if the grounding isn’t realistically enforceable, it will be more difficult for you to follow through consistently.
Sal Severe

Toss it Grounding has no place in a positive discipline approach to raising a child. Children don’t have to suffer to learn. Grounding is a form of punishment where adults do something to a child. Instead, think about ways to solve a discipline problem with your child.

If your kids are constantly fighting, instead of grounding them, you might, after a cooling-off period alone in separate rooms, have them focus on ways to resolve the problem — taking turns, removing the object in dispute, or putting the issue on the family-meeting agenda. Unless safety is a concern, don’t get involved or take sides, and have faith they can work it out.
Jane Nelsen

Yelling

If you grew up in a house of screamers, chances are you turn up the volume on your kids too. And that describes most of us: 98 percent of 7-year-olds have been shouted at by their parents, according to the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire.

While no one is suggesting that the occasional angry outburst is damaging for life, there’s evidence to suggest that constant yelling is as emotionally harmful to children as physical abuse.

So why do we bellow instead of staying mellow? We yell because we can, because we feel our children don’t listen, because we’re angry and lack other tools to call on in the moment, says Devra Renner, coauthor of Mommy Guilt, which calls yelling the number one guilt-inducer in moms of school-age children.

“A growing frustration is not being heard because our families are affixed to a screen of some sort,” says Renner. “Parents are more inclined to yell if they’re trying to talk to a distracted, screen-gazing kid.”

What the experts say…

Toss it If you resort to yelling on a regular basis, you’ve created a cycle that’s a trap. Your kids will wait for the yelling to make sure you mean business. Yelling actually reduces your influence by pushing you to more emotional intensity than the situation warrants — say, trying to convince your child to pick up his toys. It empowers your child: He knows he can upset you by delaying. It’s self-defeating.

Instead, be relentless but not emotional. If you find yourself about to yell, take a break or have your partner step in. Backing off to cool off doesn’t mean you’re giving up for good.
Carl Pickhardt

Toss it Upping the volume isn’t the way to get what you want. Worse yet, the more frequent the yelling, the more often it has to be used to do the job. Your kid builds up a tolerance for yelling, so your pitch has to get louder, the frequency longer — and soon everyone is yelling just to be heard.
Michele Borba

Toss it A raised, irritated, or angry voice sends the wrong message — loss of control. That’s when kids are most likely to test you, because they realize you’re hooked and beginning to dance. Instead, your tone should convey that you’re firm, in control, respectful, and resolute. State your expectations in a matter-of-fact way with your regular speaking voice.

Your actions will convey your message more powerfully than words spoken loudly, so be prepared to take action immediately if your child continues to misbehave. Instead of hollering “turn the TV off” for the third time, simply switch it off yourself.
Robert MacKenzie, the Setting Limits series

Forcing an apology

You want your child to be polite, but does a grudgingly muttered “sorry” really help? Or does it just serve to shame and embarrass your child in public? Still, who among us wasn’t prodded into apologies for sparring with siblings, insulting friends, and being just a little too honest about that boring gift from Grandma? If you’ve spent any time hanging out near a sandbox lately, you know that the forced apology is still much mumbled on playgrounds nationwide.

What the experts say…

Toss it A forced apology isn’t appropriate at any age. All a parent is doing is teaching a child to lie. If a child isn’t sorry but a parent forces him to apologize, that’s just about making a parent feel better — it has nothing to do with a child learning empathy.

Instead, parents need to help a child make a connection before a correction. First ask, “What happened?” Then, “How do you think Sammy felt when you took his toy away?” Once the child has had a chance to consider the consequences of his actions and empathize with the other person, follow up with, “What could you say to make him feel better?” You want the idea to come from the child.
Jane Nelsen

Toss it Forcing an apology is like begging for a compliment. Both are worthless unless sincerely given. Sincere apologies are important because at issue are two vital parts of discipline: conscience and self-correction. Apologies need to be modeled for a child to learn to express genuine remorse. Parents who refuse to admit wrongdoing encourage children to follow that example.

Try setting this example with your child instead: “I’m sorry for what I said and if it hurt your feelings. My anger is no excuse. I won’t say it again.”
Carl Pickhardt

Toss it With a forced apology, genuine sentiment is lacking and the lesson is lost. Plus, some kids may have a hard time offering a true apology verbally. But they can write a note, do a drawing, or make a small gift, all acceptable ways to handle a situation that requires an apology.
Michele Borba

Put-downs

If a parent finds herself resorting to ridicule, guilt, shame, and humiliation, she likely picked up the habit from her parents. “I find myself using phrases like ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and ‘Why can’t you act like other children?'” says one mom who heard similar comments growing up. “I’m sure this does nothing for my son’s self-esteem — it just makes him angry and aggressive. I know that’s how I felt.”

Name-calling, belittling, and insulting (“You’re such a bad boy”), scapegoating and blaming (“If you weren’t so clumsy, the vase wouldn’t have broken”), and sarcasm (“Now that was clever,” delivered in a mocking tone) only scare or scar a child, say parenting authorities, who cite an array of problems linked to negative verbal interactions, including poor self-esteem, lack of self-control, impulsiveness, anger management issues, impatience, inability to trust, anxiety, depression, and emotional trauma.

What the experts say…

Toss it A national survey found that the average parent makes 18 critical, negative comments to his child for every one positive comment. As the old song goes, “You have to accentuate the positive to eliminate the negative.” Look for ways to nurture your child’s best qualities.
Michele Borba

Toss it Parents who use put-downs, teasing, ridicule, and criticism do enormous damage to a child’s self-esteem. These tactics are also self-defeating: Any corrective behavior is far outweighed by the cost of compliance. Parents who lash out verbally often can’t see the injury they’re causing but only care about only the obedience they’re getting and the anger they’re expressing. For punishment to work, it needs to be rationally thought out, not emotionally driven.
Carl Pickhardt

Toss it Messages that shame, blame, criticize, or humiliate go too far. They reject the child along with the misbehavior. If you want your 5-year-old to stop poking her brother at the dinner table, a clear message would be “Keep your hands off your brother, please,” or “Stop poking your brother.” Not “Why do you have to be such a pest?”
Robert MacKenzie

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