Nov. 5, 2013 06:28

Consequence and discipline

[Editor's Note: Amy Cavanaugh is a medical psychologist specializing in adolescent and family counseling.]

Spanking is one of those controversial parenting topics where everyone has an opinion. The Academy of Pediatrics and The American Psychological Association are both against spanking as corporal punishment has been linked to a variety of problems in children (aggression, anxiety), but a majority of U.S. children have been spanked at some time in their lives. Most parents who spank their children do not believe it is harmful, and spanking is based in their own childhood experience of discipline, i.e., "if kids today were spanked like we were back in the day, they wouldn't have all these problems." Most parents are well-meaning and want the best for their children, and I believe that many parents spank because they are at a loss for how to discipline their children in other ways, especially children who have a high activity level, such as children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Similarly, parents of toddlers and preschool children often see spanking as a way of "getting the child's attention" and don't know other ways to accomplish that.

Although I do not recommend spanking as a discipline technique, I accept that spanking is going to go on in some families. If a family is adamant about spanking, I advise that spanking be used as a punishment of last resort and that it not be used on children with anxiety or who already demonstrate aggressive behaviors. Think about it: it doesn't make sense to teach your child not to hit by hitting them. Most important, spanking should not be done out of anger. The purpose of spanking is not to make the parent feel better by expelling his negative emotion in a whack; it's supposed to be a consequence to a undesirable behavior. So if you're going to spank, make sure to be calm when you do it so as not to scare and/or possibly harm a child. There's a fine line between fear and respect.

Punishment, including spanking, is the least effective method of shaping behavior. Some children, especially more active, less anxious ones are especially motivated by reward and much less affected by punishment; punishment "doesn't phase them." Remember that discipline is about teaching, so that children develop a conscience and make good choices because they've internalized your values. Positive reinforcement, which is giving a reward for a desired behavior (especially one you're working on like listening the first time, using your table manners) is the most effective way to increase the likelihood of good behavior occurring again. I'm often asked: "isn't a reward like a bribe?" No; a bribe is given before a behavior is performed; a reward/positive reinforcer is given after the desired behavior is performed. Think of it this way: earning your paycheck at the end of your workweek is not a bribe; neither is a word of praise, choosing what's for dinner, a hug, ten extra minutes of television, or a sticker on a chart that leads to a larger prize for a child's good behavior.

Consequences, positive and negative, are important. We all have to learn the cause and effect of our actions, good and bad. I tell parents all the time: "don't say it if you don't mean it and you're not going to follow through with it." This is true whether you promised a child to go out for ice cream for good grades or you threatened to take away television for being sassy. Your word is your bond. Consequences can be natural ("you stayed up late and now you're tired; you still have to get up for school") or applied, like a parent taking away a privilege (no iPod, no playing outside, no going to that sleepover this weekend) or, for younger children, time-out. "But Dr. Amy, time-out doesn't work." If time-out doesn't work, it probably means you're not doing it right. Here are some time-out tips:

  • The purpose of time-out is to separate the child for a short period of time (the younger the child, the shorter the time) to allow the child to calm down, as well as to discourage inappropriate behavior. Time-out really means "time-out from positive reinforcement." That means a child is removed from positive things like the attention of the people around him or from a fun activity.
  • Teach your child about time-out before you do one. You can even practice it; that way they know what to expect and you're not explaining it in the moment when the child's not calm. Be cool, matter-of-fact, and immediate. Since you talked about time-out ahead of time, you don't need to explain, apologize, or second-guess your discipline. If your child senses uncertainty in you, get ready for a protest. 
  • Time-outs may be on a chair, step, corner, bedroom, or any other location where there are no distractions, e.g., TV. You can use time-out anywhere: a bench outside a restaurant, a corner in the grocery store, next to a tree at the zoo, or even in your car. Put your child in the back seat while you sit quietly for a few minutes in the front.  Use any spot that removes the child from the scene of the misbehavior.  It's the actual removal of the child that makes the impression rather than where, or how long, the child sits or stands.
  • The child should be old enough to sit still and is required to remain there for a fixed period.  Time-out is generally not effective for children under three years of age, unless you sit with the child. Redirection is usually a better strategy for toddlers.
  • Other simpler forms of time-out can be ignoring or turning away, especially in cases where a parent's attention is the positive reinforcer. In a sense, the parent goes into time-out by not giving attention to the child's behavior. For example, if a child is whining, ignoring the whining and only responding when the child asks appropriately can be very effective. 
  • The child should be sitting calmly at the end of the time-out period. Although you can use a timer for time-out, it's important that you the parent and not the clock let the child up from time-out; you're the one in charge. When the child has calmed down, they may then express themselves more politely or return to their activity.
  • If your child won't "stay in time-out," sit with her, and if necessary keep putting her back physically and give her the message "I'm the adult; we are taking a time-out." If she throws a fit about it, she stays until she's calm. Sometimes if a child is really strong-willed (and strong-lung-ed), I'll take the first deep breath between screams as a moment of calm just so she learns that being quiet and calm will get her out of time-out. Give your child the message that she is going into time-out no matter what, so she might as well do it, get it over with, and get on with life.
  • After the time-out is over, it's over. The child has served his time and it's time to move on. Convey to him that you now expect him to play nicely, and maybe move to a different activity than the one where the misbehavior occurred.
  • Time-out is more effective when the child gets a lot of positive reinforcement (praise, attention) for good behavior. Otherwise, the child's really not missing out on anything.  A parent's connectedness and engagement with a child is called "time-in," and children definitely need more time-in than time-out.
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