Employee & Community Health

What's the best way to discipline your child?

4/11/2019 by Drs. Chris Derauf and Arne Graff

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"I was spanked, and I turned out okay." "Spare the rod, spoil the child." "Spanking isn't hitting, and it's not abuse." "It works!" "It's part of our culture." These are just some of the common responses from parents and caregivers in the U.S. — and worldwide — in support of spanking or hitting children as a form of discipline. 

But a growing volume of research is showing that spanking or hitting children actually can have the opposite effect parents were trying to achieve. Research reveals that:

  • Spanking doesn't reduce aggression or make children more compliant. 
  • It's linked to worse, not better behavior. 
  • Kids learn that hitting and violence are acceptable when interacting with others. 
  • It can foster depression, anxiety and aggression in children and even affect their performance in school. 
  • Spanking damages the whole parent/child relationship because someone they love hurts them. 

Even with these findings, there are many reasons why spanking is still an accepted form of discipline around the world. These range from cultural and religious, to frustration, stress and loss of self-control, to not understanding child development or knowing other options that do work. 

So what works better than spanking, hitting or even harsh verbal abuse? The goal of discipline is to teach children ways that will help them develop self-control, character and appropriate social behavior. 

All kids need someone who's crazy about them — that's number one. Children also need appropriate limits, stability and consistent routines. Just having these will encourage good behavior. That's not to say discipline isn't still needed, but it needs a different approach. 

Catch kids being good

Kids strive to meet our expectations for them. If we expect kids to be troublemakers, they'll keep doing something wrong for the attention. Paying attention to kids is a powerful tool for parents. If you try to catch kids being good, they'll respond by wanting to repeat the good behavior. Give positive praise and do it promptly. Sometimes all that's needed is a smile to let them know you've noticed. 

It's about downplaying the bad behavior and rewarding the good. For a rule of thumb, use a ratio of five to one of positive feedback to negative feedback. 

Time out — for both parents and kids

One goal of discipline is to encourage children to reflect on their behavior and what they've learned. A time out can be a useful strategy, particularly for children ages two to seven. Put your child in an uninteresting place, usually for one minute for every year of age. If they leave, return them to that place. 

But time outs work for parents, too. Sometimes parents just need to step away from the situation with their child. While their child is in a time out, they can put themselves in one, too. That can be going to another room or sitting outside. Or, if the parent prefers, they can sit next to their child and say something like, "I need to calm down, too. Let's both take a break." Once everyone is calm, the parent and child can discuss what happened and what would have been a better behavior. 

That approach makes time outs effective on two levels: the situation is handled more calmly and parents model self-control to their kids. 

If you have questions about or would like to learn more effective parenting skills, talk with your child's care provider. There are lots of resources for parents ranging from classes to support groups. 

Dr. Chris Derauf is a consultant in the Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic. He specializes in pediatric medicine and child abuse and is on the staff of the Mayo Child and Family Advocacy Program (MCFAP) in Rochester. 

Dr. Arne Graff is a consultant in the Departments of Family Medicine and Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic. He specializes in family medicine and child abuse and is the medical director of the Mayo Child and Family Advocacy Program (MCFAP) in Rochester.