Effective parenting and discipline without spanking

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The integration of my practice as an educational psychologist and my daily life as a father has compelled me to avoid the use of corporal punishment with my children. Decades of psychological research on effective parenting discipline* emphasize three main methods for teaching our children right from wrong without resorting to physical punishment.

The most important thing we can do as parents is to provide our children with the ability to learn from their mistakes. Think about this: Haven’t your mistakes been times when you have incommensurately grown as a person? Humans are wired to seek equilibrium in our lives. When we make a mistake, the brain’s main focus becomes the understanding of what we did wrong, and the creative search for alternative ways to approach similar situations in the future. The same processes are true for children. When we discipline our children, we trigger in them a desire to understand what happened, so that they can get back to feeling like the world is a comprehensible place.

An important fact to keep in mind as we try to turn our children into successful adults is that, as children, every experience is new. Children do not have the breadth of experience to create analogies between their mistakes and other situations they have encountered. It is up to us to feed them tools for evolving as independent people, from our store of life lessons. Our children are like aliens on our planet. Their only source of understanding about the way we expect people to behave is our words and actions directed to them. Every time your child misbehaves, this is an opportunity to teach them how to be a civilized human being.

There are times when our children’s behavior is egregious enough to require punishment. However, there are two different ways of punishment, which have very different outcomes in the mental lives of our children. Longitudinal research very clearly demonstrates that punishment methods involving berating, or spanking our children, only curb negative behavior in the short term. In the long term, our children come to resent us for hurting them, and, because they have no information about what behaviors we would like to see, can only work on developing techniques for how to avoid getting caught in the behavior next time. The second, more effective, type of punishment does not apply physical force, but instead removes privileges (toys, video games, TV time, playtime). According to behavioral research, this method teaches the child that the behavior in question is considered inappropriate, without carrying with it the negative side-effect of resentment toward parents.

  • Punishment through removal of privileges, however, is not sufficient by itself. The main goal of parenting is to teach our children what we want, so that they become able to learn from mistakes (per number 1 above). A child who is punished for hitting his brother learns what he should not do, but does not gain any insight into alternate ways to resolve conflict, nor does he learn what behaviors you would like to see. All children crave parental approval. Punishment alone leaves the child feeling inadequate in your eyes, and confused about what is expected.

In order to create children who exhibit desirable behaviors, we must identify a behavior to replace the one we are trying to eradicate. Therefore, in order to simultaneously discourage “bad” behavior, while also giving our child information on how to exhibit “good” behavior, we must sit them down, explain to them why they were punished, and tell them what we would like them to do next time.

Now, how to make it stick? You must catch them exhibiting this replacement behavior, and reward them for it with lots of praise and discussion about how proud you are that they handled themselves so well. In our busy lives, we often breathe a sigh of relief when our children are acting well, viewing it as an opportunity to get a break from our parenting. However, if the only time a child can make you get off the phone, or the computer, or away from your work or the TV is when they are acting out, because your attention is such a motivator, your child will continue to act out in order to get you to give them that much-needed attention. A child who is acting out to get attention, even if the attention is negative attention, can learn that they can get you to see them when they are being good.

Remember these three suggestions: a) We punish unwanted behavior through the removal of privileges. b) We follow the punishment with a discussion of what we would like them to do next time. c) Then, we make an internal commitment to stop what we are doing, and give our child praise and reward when they do what we suggested.

Over time, negative behavior fades away, and the positive behavior holds strong in its place. Our children need us, not to show them our muscles, but to learn them into goodness through the showing of our hearts.

* For a fantastic and thorough read on the extant research, and tips on how to discipline without spanking, check out “The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, and Crime.”


Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, husband and father of two sons. You can learn more at his site, dr.johnrich.com. Got questions? He’ll help you navigate. You can reach him directly at info@drjohnrich.com.

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