Every parent of a young child has probably experienced that moment when your little one tests the limits of your patience. Perhaps you’ve asked your daughter to pick up her toys for the third time, and she’s ignored you. Or maybe your son has snatched a toy (once again) from his crying toddler sister. What do you do?
If you’re like most parents, your first inclination may be to yell, threaten, or give a good old-fashioned swat on the bottom. After all, it’s your job and responsibility to discipline your kids. And no one wants to raise a spoiled child.
A growing body of evidence suggests, however, that physical punishment may make a bad situation worse. Last year a Tulane University study of nearly 2,500 children found that those who were spanked more frequently at age three were likely to be more aggressive by age five. Other research has also identified correlations between frequent physical punishment and behavioral problems, childhood anxiety and depression, and impaired cognitive development.
Certainly the appeal of spanking for parents is that it does immediately stop misbehavior. But it quickly becomes less effective with repeated use and may make discipline more difficult as a child grows older. Sometimes physical punishment can escalate, and even result in unintentional harm to the child.
The primary goal of discipline is to teach children the acceptable behaviors they need to learn to thrive both in their home and the outside world. An emphasis on punishment, though, doesn’t really identify and reinforce positive behaviors. Parents get more compliance from children when they show them what they can do, rather than constantly telling them what they cannot. Combining consequences with brief explanations lays the groundwork for being able to make decisions later in life based on a sense of morality and values. For example, if Joshua sneaks a toy home from a friend’s house, and Mom finds out and says: "We don’t take toys that aren’t ours. You wouldn’t like it if he took your toy. We’ll go back to his house and you can return it to him.” The short explanation of why this social rule exists, along with the consequence of having to face his friend, makes it more likely Joshua will eventually learn to do the right thing on his own.
Other effective discipline strategies:
• Be specific and clear in communicating your expectations to your child.
• Consistency is key. If you’ve said you’ll leave the playground if your daughter can’t wait her turn on the slide without pushing, then you must leave immediately, or she will know you don’t really mean it when you set a limit.
• Use natural and logical consequences as the best teachers. Natural consequences let children learn without any adult intervention. If a child plays too roughly with a favorite toy and it breaks, that is a natural consequence (as long as the parent doesn’t rush to fix or replace it). Provide logical consequences when the natural ones aren’t safe or acceptable. For example, if a child won’t put toys away when asked, the parent can confiscate them for a short period of time to teach responsibility.
• Praise good behavior. Often we neglect to acknowledge improvements in a child’s behavior, but positive reinforcement is very effective.