The term discipline is used variously in the literature. The more restrictive view of discipline is to define it as consequences for child misbehavior (e.g., using time out, spanking, removing privileges). The more comprehensive view of discipline, the view elaborated here, defines it as behaviors aimed at helping children learn how to behave. In this vein, discipline includes providing positive motivators for desired behavior as well as punishing child misbehavior.
Types Of Discipline
Positive forms of discipline, those forms aimed at increasing the frequency of desired behaviors, include attention, praise, privileges, and concrete rewards (e.g., stickers, tokens, money). Punishment, which is aimed at decreasing the frequency of unwanted child behaviors, is frequently divided into categories of physical punishment and nonphysical punishment. Physical punishment involves inflicting physical pain or discomfort. The most common form of physical punishment used by parents is spanking, but other forms of hitting (e.g., slap on the wrist) are also considered physical punishment. Nonphysical punishment includes behaviors such as removing attention, privileges, or child possessions; isolating a child for a period of time as in time out; scolding; shaming; or asking a child to perform a task that he or she regards as difficult or undesirable such as chores.
In the late 1960s, Diana Baumrind proposed three major approaches to child discipline in Western culture. She proposed the term authoritative to describe discipline that combines high levels of emotional support with limit setting, requests for child cooperation, reasoning, and monitoring of child behavior. The term authoritarian refers to discipline that is low in emotional support and high in control and punishment. A permissive approach to discipline includes high levels of emotional support but relatively few limits set on the child’s behavior.
Effective Home Discipline
Since the late 1960s, research has demonstrated the relative effectiveness of particular parental discipline strategies and the relative ineffectiveness of other strategies.
Effective parental discipline strategies include the use of clear rules and commands, time out, brief withdrawal of privileges, consistency in implementation of discipline behaviors, and immediate reinforcement (e.g., praise, reward) of appropriate child behavior. Parents should be sure that the child is capable of performing behaviors that he or she is asked to do. When one delivers punishment, he or she should remain as unemotional as possible so as to not give additional attention to the child’s misbehavior.
Parental discipline behaviors that have been found to be relatively ineffective include use of unclear rules and commands, attention for inappropriate behavior, laxness (i.e., failure to follow through on planned consequences for child misbehavior), and use of harsh physical punishment. Discipline is also less effective when there is a long delay between child misbehavior and parental discipline and when the parent gives many warnings to the child before giving the child a consequence for misbehavior.
Studies have found that the effectiveness of specific discipline strategies varies to some extent depending on the child’s age. For example, time out is most effective from ages 2 to 9 years. Removal of privileges is more effective for children 4 to 17 years of age than for children younger than 4 years. Reasoning (i.e., negotiation regarding rules and consequences for child misbehavior) is more effective with adolescents than younger children.
Effective School Discipline
The literature regarding effective discipline for children in school settings parallels that of effective home discipline. It is recommended that teachers post rules clearly in the classroom to remind children of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Effective discipline strategies for the classroom include structured reward programs aimed at increasing children’s appropriate behavior (e.g., remaining seated, completing seat work, raising a hand when one wishes to speak), time out, and loss of privilege. Response-cost programs, which combine reward for appropriate behavior and punishment for inappropriate behavior, have also been found to be effective. In a response-cost program, a child is given points for appropriate behaviors and loses points for inappropriate behaviors; accrued points can be exchanged for desired rewards such as computer time or attractive school supplies. When one is considering the implementation of a discipline program in the classroom, one must consider issues of teacher acceptability of various discipline strategies. Research has found that teachers most often favor discipline programs that reward appropriate child behavior rather than punish inappropriate behavior. Additionally, teachers may prefer discipline programs that include every child in the classroom over programs that focus attention solely on one child’s behavior.
Cross-Cultural Issues In Discipline
Studies have attempted to determine possible variability in the effectiveness of discipline behaviors as a function of family cultural background. Some studies suggest, for example, that an authoritarian discipline style may be more effective in African-American, Latino, and Asian-American families than in European-American families. As another example, extensive verbalization while disciplining children may be a more effective discipline strategy for Chinese American parents than for European-American families because extensive verbalization during discipline is congruent with a more general Chinese philosophy regarding the importance of educating children why particular behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate. At this time, the cross-cultural literature regarding discipline is limited.
Legal Issues Regarding Use Of Physical Punishment
The use of physical punishment, or corporal punishment, is controversial in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that physical punishment in schools violated neither children’s due process rights nor their rights to protection from cruel and unusual punishment (Ingraham v. Wright, 430 US 651). Although there is no federal law banning the use of physical punishment in public schools, 28 states have passed such laws.
A panel convened by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1996 recommended against the use of physical punishment for children under age 2 years and also stated that there is more evidence of long-term negative effects from physical punishment than evidence of shortor long-term positive effects. Arguments discussed in the literature against the use of physical punishment in disciplining children include the following: (1) there is a lack of evidence that physical punishment is as effective as nonphysical forms of punishment; (2) the use of physical discipline is associated with increased rates of behavioral and emotional difficulties in childhood and adulthood; (3) the use of physical punishment teaches that violence and force are acceptable means of interpersonal communication; and (4) physical child abuse may result from unintended escalation of use of physical force while administering physical punishment for child misbehavior.
There is a small body of literature that suggests, however, that use of physical punishment may not always lead to negative child outcomes. For example, studies suggest that mild spanking, delivered calmly, may lead to a decrease in preschool children’s misbehavior, particularly when the spanking is combined with other methods of child discipline such as time out.
In the United States, the use of physical punishment in the context of parental discipline is legal in every state. Approximately 60% of American families with children under the age of 18 use physical punishment as a means of discipline. Within this group, there is considerable variability in the frequency and severity of physical punishment used. Moreover, there is substantial evidence that some parents use physical punishment in combination with many other types of discipline, whereas other parents rely predominantly on physical punishment to attempt to control their child’s behavior.
A substantial body of literature has attempted to identify parents who are most likely to use physical punishment as a means of child behavior management. Robust predictors of use of physical punishment include parental frustration, parental depressive symptoms, stress, negative perceptions of the parenting role, negative perceptions of the child, hostile attributions regarding child misbehavior, younger parent age, single parenthood, and child aggressive behavior. Studies regarding the relationships between parental use of physical punishment and race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, child gender, parent gender, and religious beliefs show mixed findings.
Outcomes Of Ineffective Discipline
The research and theoretical literature regarding discipline have identified broadly two problematic parental discipline styles: harshness and laxness. Harshness is defined as the parent responding to child misbehavior with yelling, belittling, or use of physical punishment delivered in the context of high levels of emotionality. As defined above, laxness is the failure of the adult to follow through on planned consequences for child misbehavior (e.g., threatening a consequence for child misbehavior without following through on the consequence).
Harshness has been found to be associated with anxiety symptoms, oppositional behavior, defiant behavior, juvenile delinquency, and aggression in children and adolescents. Harsh discipline experienced in childhood has also been found to be associated with depression and substance abuse in adulthood. Punishment that is given noncontingent on the child’s behavior (i.e., the parent “disciplines” the child although the child has not engaged in any misbehavior) may lead to feelings of helplessness. Children may also become insensitive to punishment if punishment is increasingly coercive over time.
Lax discipline has been found to be associated with child noncompliance and antisocial behaviors.
Studies that identify parents who are most likely to use frequently excessive physical punishment and other forms of harsh discipline may be helpful in developing early intervention and prevention programs. Helping parents to cope with stress, frustration regarding child behavior, and depression may decrease the chance of parents using harsh discipline. Promotion of self-monitoring of negative thoughts and feelings may help parents to choose less punitive methods of discipline when faced with child misbehavior. Studies suggest that interventions aimed at changing parents’ attitudes regarding the effectiveness of physical punishment may also be helpful. It is important to note that only half of parents indicate that they have enough
information about effective discipline strategies; thus, many parents may benefit from information about effective, nonharmful methods of child behavior management.
- American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (1998). Guidance for effective Pediatrics, 101(4), 723–728. Retrieved from http://aappolicy.aapublications.org/cgi/content/full/ pediatrics;101/4/723
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- The Center for Effective Discipline, http://stophitting.org
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