The other day I opened up my beloved Science Daily to find the following headline: “Punishing a Child is Effective if Done Correctly”. After I managed to regulate my blood pressure, I went on to read the article for I had to know exactly what was going on. All the research I have read in recent years doesn’t support this view at all – from time outs to spankings, the evidence simply doesn’t suggest that punishment works as a means of proper socialization.
Unfortunately the research is not a paper (yet) but research presented at the American Psychological Association’s Annual Convention, so all I could go on was the actual write up provided by Science Daily. So what does it say?
Let me first start by being clear that the data reported far from supports regular punishments. This is good to know. So the headline is already misleading. The first researcher (this was a panel on discipline so various people spoke), from Oklahoma State University, looked at 102 mother-toddler dyads and interviewed parents about their discipline techniques—specifically punishment (time outs or taking things away, for example), compromises, and reasoning—over specific instances of “child misbehaviours”. These misbehaviours were hitting, whining, defiance, negotiating, or not listening. (If you’re thinking there’s a typo and that “negotiating” shouldn’t be on this list, you wouldn’t be insane, but you would be wrong. These researchers actually saw toddler negotiating as a type of misbehaviour. Go figure!)
In the immediate moment, compromise worked best for stopping all “misbehaviours”. Reasoning was second most effective for negotiating or whining. Punishments were second most effective for hitting or being defiant or not listening. However, this was only in the moment. In the long-term, there was a different pattern in terms of change in child behaviour; two months later, the same parents were interviewed about the prevalence of these behaviours and lo and behold, reasoning comes out on top for all behaviours. That is, parents who used reasoning had children who displayed these behaviours less two months later whereas parents who used compromise too frequently actually had children who were acting worse (of course we need to ask what they were worse at – all behaviours or are they better negotiators now and that’s seen as worse?). Where does punishment fall in here? Well, the researchers found that for a subset of children who were particularly defiant, moderate use (which was defined as less than 16% of the time) led to improvements in these particular children, but not others.
Returning to the headline, does this really support the use of punishment? Not really. For all kids, reasoning worked best, even though it didn’t always produce the results wanted in the moment, and this included hitting and other “defiant” behaviours. What of this finding that moderate punishment actually helped particularly defiant children? It’s hard to say without knowing more details of the specific behaviours, but when it includes things like taking something away, this may reflect taking something away that’s being used as a weapon, a very logical consequence for a child to bear (you can read up on logical consequences here). Or if a parent interprets time-ins as timeouts (which I have witnessed time and again when discussing timeouts on EP’s facebook page), they aren’t actually engaging in punishment, even though they might report using a “timeout”. Regardless, the findings pertaining to punishment should be taken in context. That is, they were helpful for a subset of toddlers and even then only when administered in low doses (I consider less than 16% to be a low dose) and combined with other techniques like reasoning. Hardly a call for more use of punishment.
Ideas and Comments About Punishment
Discipline Isn’t Punishment
The first comment I want to make is about some of the researchers whose work is quoted in here who have some pretty erroneous ideas about what constitutes punishment versus discipline. For example, the presenter from Oklahoma State University, Dr. Robert Larzelere, is quoted as saying, “Parental discipline and positive parenting techniques are often polarized in popular parenting resources and in parenting research conclusions”, before concluding that punishment can be used effectively. I take issue with the idea that “parental discipline” has to equal “punishment” here as this is not the origin of the word and results in a lot of misinterpretation about gentle discipline compared to mainstream authoritarian techniques.
For those that don’t know, the origin of “discipline” is as follows (from the Merriam-Webster dictionary): Middle English, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French, from Latin ‘disciplina’ teaching, learning, from ‘discipulus’ pupil. Sadly, our society has so lost track of the fact that discipline comes from the idea of teaching (why we study certain “disciplines”) that punishment is its sole use these days. However, if parents take the idea of teaching to heart, then it changes the way in which we approach our children’s behaviour and is likely one reason why reasoning was found to be the most effective form of discipline in the aforementioned research.
Are Timeouts Effective?
My second comment comes from the summary of timeouts as effective. One researcher, Dr. Ennio Cipani, argues that timeouts are very effective when done “correctly”, namely not spur-of-the-moment, but planned ahead and always followed through on. No research is cited specifically, but the cynic in me would point out that this is pure first-wave behaviourism that often fails when children are removed from the specific situation. Part of why these punishments are deemed to “fail” is that they often don’t involve the reasoning stage and thus children fail to learn why the behaviours are bad. This is not socialization. Further, it actually counters evidence that timeouts work in the long-term if there are no consequences to breaking the timeout. As summarized here, the research on the efficacy of timeouts depends upon harsh consequences, like spanking, for not complying with the timeout, thus it is unclear if children are afraid of the harsh consequence or if they have learned a lesson.
Compliance or Socialization?
Third, there is the issue of the focus on compliance. One Dr. Mark Roberts from Idaho State University (and actually one of the main researchers on the efficacy of timeouts) spoke about a method called the Hanf method of parenting. This method is based on a graded scale in which parents start with positive discipline, such as praise for good behaviour, and work towards more authoritarian techniques, such as timeouts, as the child doesn’t comply. Although this sounds nice and Dr. Roberts assures people that the number of timeouts decreases (though never is eliminated), it seems as though the focus remains compliance or obedience.
The problem with this is that when we think about the type of teenagers or adults we want our children to become, rarely if ever do you hear parents say they want their kids to blindly follow what is told to them. They want adults who can think for themselves, say no to their peers, and make decisions on their own. They want children who are responsible for themselves and can make amends when they make a mistake. When we focus our discipline on simply making sure our children obey us, we aren’t actually teaching them any of these critical skills. Actually we’re teaching them the opposite of these skills, even if it’s in a “nicer manner” in which we start off being all happy about compliance and save our anger for when they really won’t do what we tell them to.
The Importance of Positive Connections
Finally, I want to comment on the importance of positive connection, discussed in part by Dr. David Reitman of Nova Southeastern University. In his presentation on punishment in clinical cases, he mentioned that people often ignore the therapists’ effort to promote positive connections with the child. This concerns me because it highlights an issue that is exemplified by the headline: People are ignoring the positive connection in hopes of easy punishment to alter behaviour, or gain compliance as discussed above. This is a problem and I would hope that people would realize how important a positive connection with a child is to their socialization and well-being.
I don’t know the exact techniques he uses with his own clients or what he studies, but the fact that he is cognizant of how important the connection is says the focus to parents needs to be turned away from punishment and towards the parent-child relationship. As he put it, “Therapists can help parents understand the problem, facilitate changes in the environment and help the children acquire the skills they need to become successful.” This is what all parents should be working towards and punishment doesn’t need fit into this framework, especially if parents know from the beginning how these types of changes take time and that the end-goal isn’t just compliance, but socialization.
I would hope it’s clear that the data presented and the views shared hardly support a return to punishment as a means of socialization. If anything, I think the take-home message is that there will be cases in which parents use punishments sparingly and it helps them, depending on the child. This doesn’t mean they are necessary, but when used infrequently, they may help a parent, even if it’s just to give the parent a sense of control over the situation. I still maintain the end goal of helping families understand the problems, change environments, and help children gain skills – all mentioned by Dr. Reitman – is exactly what we need to focus more on when it comes to helping parents. And gentle parenting does all of these things and more.
If you’re interested in reading more on gentle discipline (which does not mean letting anything and everything slide), please check out these great books (clicking on the link will take you to your local Amazon where a purchase will provide EP with a small percentage of the sale, helping to cover the costs of the site):