Discipline Dilemma: How much is too much?


(WRIC/WISH) – No matter how perfect kids are, they all need to be disciplined at some point. But how do you do it effectively?

65 percent of Americans would suggest spanking is the key to discipline, but according to the American Psychological Association, spanking only works in the moment to stop misbehavior because children are afraid of being hit.

Research shows spanking causes long term damage to a developing child’s brain and even the stress of anticipating the spanking can actually change the wiring of the brain and interfere with learning, thinking and later relationships. A recent study showed how spanking negatively affects a child’s moral development.

There is even research to suggest that over time, spanking actually makes parenting more difficult because it reduces the ability of parents to influence children, especially in adolescence. The APA suggests children are more likely to do what parents want when there is a strong bond of affection and trust with the parent and that spanking chips away at that bond.

Child psychologist Dr. Fiona Kress says spanking is discouraged because, for one, it undermines the overall goal of discipline.

“The goal being that you would like the child to behave in a certain way – an appropriate, respectful manner,” says Kress. “So if that’s the goal of discipline, then you’re trying to teach the child what an appropriate behavior would be in that situation.”

Many parents need help learning the proper way to discipline and are turning to online resources from people like Amy McCready.

McCready, a former career woman at a Fortune 500 company, began teaching other parents about research-supported discipline 15 years ago after her own struggles raising two boys.

“Once I had kids, I found that even though I was actually pretty capable in my corporate life, raising kids was so much more difficult,” says McCready.

Through her business, Positive Parenting Solutions, McCready hosts free online webinars and regularly contributes to local and national television broadcasts on the topic.

“Just because we are loving and nurturing and smart people – that doesn’t mean we know how to handle a tantrum in a grocery store,” says McCready

McCready begins by teaching parents about the two main reasons children act out.

“The two primary motivators for misbehavior are attention and power,” says McCready. “If kids don’t get that positive attention that they need, then they’ll act out in negative ways to get our attention. And then the other reason is power. For kids, if they don’t have enough age appropriate power in positive ways, they’ll get it in negative ways – they’ll refuse to cooperate, they’ll back talk, they’ll push parents’ buttons.”

McCready points out that giving each child 15 minutes of your undivided attention every day is how to begin fulfilling their need for attention. In terms of their need for power, McCready suggests giving them things to do.

“They can do a lot of things for themselves! Give them important jobs in the kitchen – they can pull grapes off of a stem, they can tear up lettuce to help you make dinner. Those are all really big important jobs.”

The other piece to preventing misbehavior is letting kids know – ahead of time – how you expect them to behave in any given situation and the consequences if they don’t. Dr. Kress points out this method is part of the research-supported method called “Parent Management Training.”

“What you’re doing there as parents is you are really sitting down together and talking about ‘what are the specific behaviors that we want to change?’ And then once you get that identified and you know what behaviors you’d like to see different, then you set up a behavior plan with the child so that you are promoting the positive behaviors,” says Kress.

Basically, you have your kids identify the proper rewards and punishments associated with each of the family rules.

“If the child is not following one of those rules that you’ve laid out ahead of time, then being able to provide the child with an understanding that ‘hey, right now that behavior is not what we talked about,’” says Kress.

If the child continues to misbehave, Dr. Kress suggests following through with the punishment, which varies based on the child’s age.

“For young children, ‘timeout’ would be an effective method,” says Kress. “As children get older, things become more meaningful for them, so there could be a privilege loss if a negative behavior occurs and there could be a privilege gain if a positive behavior occurs.”

Dr. Kress suggests that if you use timeout as the punishment for younger children, the conversation afterward is critical in order to teach children how they should act in those situations. Missing the post-timeout conversation is one reason why Amy McCready believes ‘timeout’ often does not work.

“What tends to happen with time out is that the parent puts the child in time out – again – it stops the behavior in the moment, but it doesn’t teach the child to do anything differently,” says McCready.

McCready instead teaches parents to find solutions to the problems before using punishments for younger children.

For example, if a child constantly opens drawers and cabinets, McCready suggests simply removing the items from that cupboard that the child finds interesting – instead of correcting them. She also suggests controlling the environment by placing child-proofing measures on cabinets to avoid constantly correcting kids.

“There are so many times that our response actually escalates the child’s negative behavior,” says McCready. “Giving attention or power to a behavior actually reinforces that behavior and the child will continue the behavior because it ‘works’ for the child.”

But when you do have to follow through with a punishment, McCready teaches an easy-to-remember guide called “The 5 R’s”.

Every consequence must be:

  1. Respectful to the child and the adult
  2. Related to the misbehavior
  3. Reasonable in duration based on the child’s age and development
  4. Revealed in advance
  5. Then, have the child Repeat the rule and consequence back to you – so you know they heard and processed what you said.

“So, as an example, I would go to my son and say ‘Sweetie, I see you’re playing video games and you know that when I call you for dinner, I expect the game to be turned off and you come to the table the first time I ask, otherwise you’ll lose your privileges to play tomorrow. Now, what happens if you don’t come to the kitchen?”

McCready instructs that should be the time the child repeats the punishment back  so you know they heard and understand.

“So when you follow through and implement the consequence, you’re not the bad guy. They made that choice. They knew what the deal was and they made that choice,” McCready said.

Both experts agree that the role of discipline is to teach children and model the behavior you would like to see.

“So as parents we can think about that,” says Dr. Kress. “We can think about ‘how do I want this child to respond in situations,’ then respond that way ourselves. We’re teaching the child the behaviors we would like for the child to copy.”

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