Discipline: What's a Parent to Do? (page 3)
The most important issue most parents face is how to provide appropriate discipline for their children, and this is a very important part of the parent-child subsystem. Psychologists use the word discipline to refer to the techniques parents and caregivers use to teach children appropriate behavior.
A Caution About Punishment
Unfortunately, when most people think of discipline, they think immediately about punishment, or techniques used to eliminate or reduce undesirable behavior. Unless people have had special training in parenting or child development, they often overemphasize punishment when disciplining children. Too often, parents end up spanking, hitting, or yelling at children. Most parents don't want to be harsh with their children, but over time they may lose their patience. They may feel that their problems are endless as young children fuss, fight, and get into things. With 2-year-olds, 65% of parent-child interactions involve the parent telling the toddler not to do something, as in "Don't touch that!" "Get down!" or "Don't do that!" (Baumrind, 1996; Hoffman, 1975).
In surveys, 84% of American adults agree with the statement, "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking" (Lehman, 1989; Straus, 1994). Sixty-five percent of parents report that they slap, hit, or spank their infants; 90% spank 3-year-olds; 35% are still hitting or spanking their adolescents at age 16 (Straus, 1994). One out of every four parents uses a belt, wooden paddle, or other object to spank his or her children (Straus & Stewart, 1999).
In the long run, spanking is not effective (Holden, 2002). When children are spanked, they eventually return to the misbehavior or replace it with other inappropriate behaviors. Hitting and spanking can cause children to fear their parents. If children try to run, or if they-strike back or talk back to their parents, the hitting usually becomes more severe. Although most spanking is not legally considered physically abusive, it is true that most physical abuse begins as physical punishment—punishment that then gets out of hand (Straus, 1994).
Another thing to consider is the message that spanking sends to children. Do we want them to learn that "might makes right" or that it's appropriate for larger people to use physical force to get smaller people to obey? Ironically, "hitting other children" is the misbehavior that parents most often identify as calling for a spanking (Lehman, 1989; Straus, 1994). What message does the child get when the parent slaps them on the hand (or swats them on the behind) and says, "Don't hit other people!"?
Studies show that children who are spanked more often are more physically violent and aggressive; are twice as likely to attack their siblings; are more likely to steal property, commit assaults, and commit other delinquent acts; and have lower moral standards and lower self-esteem (Straus, 1994; Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1997). These studies also show that adolescents who are hit by their parents are more likely to be depressed and have suicidal thoughts, and that these problems worsen the more often they are hit.
Analyzing the results of 88 different scientific studies, Gershoff (2002) found consistent correlations between physical punishment and increases in child aggression, delinquency, and antisocial behavior; increased rates of child abuse by parents; and poorer relationships between children and parents. Children whose parents physically punished them were less likely to internalize moral values, and later in life they were more likely to suffer from mental health problems such as low self-esteem, depression, and alcoholism. As adults they were more likely to be aggressive, commit crimes, and abuse their own children and spouses.
Of course, all of these findings are correlational. It could be that children and adolescents who are more violent and engage in more misbehavior simply are spanked and hit more often. To find out whether spanking actually causes negative outcomes for children, we would need to conduct an experiment: We'd need to randomly assign some children to a group that received spankings for misbehavior and other children to a group that did not. Obviously, we cannot ethically conduct this type of experiment, so we must rely on the suggestive evidence provided by correlational studies. To be fair, we also want to point out that, according to other research, the neggative effects associated with spanking may be due to the style of parenting rather than to the spanking itself (Baumrind, Larzelere, & Cowan, 2002). As you can imagine, parents who rely heavily on spanking and hitting also tend to be less warm and affectionate, less involved, and less consistent in their parenting than parents who use more positive forms of discipline.
So, once again, what should parents do for discipline? There are many good books on the subject, and local community colleges and social service agencies usually offer excellent parent-education programs on effective discipline. We present here a basic positive program of discipline that is consistent with guidelines endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (1998) and most parenting experts. First, remember that the term discipline refers to techniques used to teach children appropriate behavior. The emphasis is on teaching rather than on punishing. Also recognize that no technique will work all of the time and right away. With patience and a calm and positive approach to discipline, parents can set firm limits and help children learn to regulate their behavior in a way that is appropriate for their age. We recommend that parents try the following steps:
- Manage the situation. Parents should be aware of the situations their children are in and should try to manage each situation to reduce the opportunities for misbehavior. Begin by childproofing your home when your child is first crawling and walking. If there are items you don't want your toddler to touch or break, put them out of reach. Notice other infractions that occur at home, and try to rearrange things to make misbehavior less likely. Make sure there are plenty of positive things for children to do and appropriate objects to explore. Too often, parents don't provide constructive activities, thereby setting up situations in which the most interesting thing to do is misbehave. This can be prevented.
- Set clear rules and limits. Parents need to communicate clearly to children the dos and don'ts that are most important. Don't have too many rules, or it will be difficult for you and your child to keep up with them all. Pick the issues that are most important for the child's age. With younger children you might focus on safety rules like "Stay in the yard" and "Don't touch the stove." For older children there can be clear rules about homework, expectations for household chores, and safety issues such as wearing a helmet while biking or skateboarding. Try to state rules positively so children know what they should do: instead of "Don't run," say "Please walk."
- Praise good behavior. Have you heard the slogan "Catch them being good"? It's important to let children know when they are behaving appropriately. Work on strengthening the positive behaviors in your children. "I notice you finished your homework early today—great job!" Behaviors tend to be repeated when they are reinforced or rewarded. When children are busy behaving well, they have less time to misbehave. Rewarding good behavior also helps parents keep a positive focus in their discipline.
- Use explanation and reasoning: When misbehavior occurs, parents need to explain the rules and provide good reasons for compliance. A calm and reasoned discussion gives parents an opportunity to express warmth and compassion to the child and an opportunity to demonstrate positive ways to handle conflict. It also gives children a chance to express their views.
- If you must punish, try removing privileges or using timeouts. If you have followed all of the preceding steps and an unwanted behavior still persists, you might consider imposing an appropriate punishment. Remember, punishment is a technique that reduces the frequency of an undesirable behavior, but it doesn't mean that you have to resort to hitting or yelling. It's best to tie the punishment to the infraction as much as possible. If children are fighting over video games, for example, they could lose the privilege of playing the games for the rest of the day. Any such disciplinary action should begin with the mildest form and should take the child's age into account. For a toddler, losing a favorite toy for a few minutes may make a big impact, whereas an 8-year-old may need to lose a privilege for several hours or a day to get the point. As an alternative, try a mild timeout. Remove the child from the situation and from anything that is encouraging the misbehavior to continue, and place him in a safe, quiet environment. A short timeout (about one minute per year of the child's age) gives children a few minutes to collect themselves and reflect on what they have done. It also gives you time to gather your thoughts—and reduces the likelihood that you will lash out in anger and say or do something you will regret. After the brief timeout, try explanation and reasoning again. Always be sure to praise children when their behavior improves. Timeouts are most effective with young children; for older children and adolescents, a loss of privilege or some type of grounding would be more appropriate.
You may feel that the steps we have outlined are not enough; you may believe that children need to "pay a price" for misbehavior. Keep in mind, however, that the focus should be on teaching good behavior. Research shows, for example, that children misbehave less when parents spend time teaching positive skills, provide children with engaging toys and learning materials, and take children on interesting trips (Bradley & Corwyn, 2005). Of course misbehavior can be very aggravating for parents, especially when they are dealing with difficult children and trying to balance multiple stresses at work and at home. Most parents want to have positive relationships with their children but it takes time, effort, and considerable emotional control to maintain a warm and caring attitude when children are continually misbehaving. Sometimes it seems that it's just plain easier to lash out, yell, or strike the child. If you find yourself in this situation, we hope that you will take some time to reflect on your own behavior and the potentially negative impact that it may have.
What if children's misbehaviors become severe? The examples we have given have been rather innocent, but we all know that some children and teens engage in behavior that is truly dangerous, violent, and even criminal. By using positive principles of discipline from an early age, we hope that parents can prevent or at least reduce severe misbehavior. If not, the same principles still apply: Try to be supportive first, keep the lines of communication open, and maintain firm rules and limits. If a child's behaviors continue to deteriorate, families should enforce limits with appropriate consequences but without hitting or otherwise contributing to family violence. If the situation continues to worsen, families should seek assistance from school counselors, psychologists, social workers, or other professionals. The point is that regardless of the situation, harsh physical punishment sends the wrong message and is simply not an effective teaching tool.
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