How Parents Discipline Their Children
Approaches Parents Use
Parents coming to the clinic where I practiced routinely completed a family questionnaire and some time ago I did a study of the answers related to my work. When asked, “How do you discipline your child,” most parents responded that they used one or some combination of these three approaches:
Parents described cozy talks, lecturing, nagging, and out-and-out yelling to discipline their children. Verbal reprimands are common, but how effective parental talking is varies widely. Most parents experience occasions when all their instructions, counsel, and good advice seem not to be heard or heeded. All too frequently talking is simply non-productive and can even become counter-productive, especially when anger comes in to play.
Parents often respond to misbehavior by use of restrictions or by removal of privileges ranging from a few minutes in the corner to limits on television time to “grounding” for weeks, the severity varying both in degree of freedom and how long the limits last.
Taking away privileges appears to be a very common approach to discipline. Limiting privileges underlies the discipline in many schools, vaguely labeled “consequences” for inappropriate behavior.
Note that there is a profound difference between removing or withholding already assumed privileges and providing privileges only after a child has completed assigned responsibilities. When a parent takes away television time or use of a favorite toy, the child is likely to see this loss as “mean old dad and mom taking my stuff.” On the other hand, when a child understands that responsible behavior is required before privileges are granted, the reaction is subtly but powerfully different. This standard teaches that restrictions of choices are based on the child’s own prior choices. For example, a child who chooses not to complete homework on time is also choosing to forego the privilege of playing with friends for the afternoon.
The third approach to discipline reported by parents was corporal punishment, ranging from a slap on the hand to swats on the behind, with some parents acknowledging pretty severe spankings.
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If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.
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There are wide differences among parents as to whether they employ spanking as a form of discipline. While controversy continues to rage about whether it is essential or unnecessary, constructive or abusive, parents typically acknowledge little lasting benefit from its use.
What These Approaches Have In Common
These three approaches – verbal, restrictive, and physical (and combinations of them) – accounted for about 95 percent of parents approaches to discipline, the rest consisting of some form of praise and encouragement.
While the harshness of each approach can vary markedly, the three approaches also have a couple of key elements in common:
All are applied only after a child has done something inappropriate (it would be strange to spank before a child does something wrong), and
Since all represent a negative response to inappropriate behavior, generally they can accurately be considered punishment.
Reported Impact of These Approaches
The parents were also asked, “Does your approach get the results you are working for?” This question really asks: “Does punishment get the results you are working for?”
About 70 percent of the parents answered “no,” indicating that they generally did not get the results hoped for.
Of the 30 percent who answered “yes” to this question, nearly all acknowledged that the changes they observed in response to punishment were only momentary and therefore their children did not show lasting improvements in their behavior.
Taken together, the results from this survey showed that very few of the parents felt that their attempts to teach responsible behavior through punishment were successful over the long run. This was true no matter what combination of verbal, restrictive, or physical approaches they relied on.
Many parents said that they had never considered discipline as related to responsible behavior. Instead they thought of discipline as the punishment they felt compelled to inflict when their children misbehaved. Given this level of reliance on punishment and its general ineffectiveness, it is important that we understand more about it.