(This article was adapted from the book Science of Relationships: Experts Answer Your Questions about Dating, Marriage, & Family.)
When most people hear the word discipline in the context of parenting, they often think of punishment, which generally involves the application of some negative stimulus (e.g., physical pain, like spanking) or removal of something positive (e.g., removal from a rewarding activity, like a time-out from play) in hopes of changing a child’s behavior. Researchers, however, conceptualize the term discipline far more broadly; it turns out that a lot of what parents might do when their children misbehave is considered discipline. For example, recent research by Elizabeth Gershoff and colleagues1 assessed how eleven different parental responses (or, as researchers refer to them, discipline techniques) in six different countries were associated with 8- to 12-year-old kids’ aggressive and anxious behaviors. Researchers asked parents how frequently they performed eleven behaviors after their kids misbehaved over the prior year (kids also indicated how often their parents did these things) and also measured kids' use of aggression and anxiety symptoms.
So what were these discipline techniques? Those techniques/behaviors included:
- Talking to the child about good and bad behavior (i.e., defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior)
- Asking the child to apologize
- Putting the child in a time-out
- Taking away privileges
- Spanking or using other forms of corporal punishment
- Expressing disappointment in the child
- Telling the child he or she should be ashamed (or shaming him/her)
- Scolding the child in a loud voice
- Telling the child that the parent will no longer love the child if the kid does it again
- Threatening some punishment if the child performs the behavior again
- Promising to give the child something rewarding, such as a treat, if the kid behaves appropriately (i.e., a bribe).
As you can see, these tactics view discipline very broadly in that they all attempt to change the child’s behavior, but don’t all involve punishment per se. What did the researchers find? It turns out that most of the reported discipline techniques had little to no effect on kids’ aggressive behaviors or anxiety. Which ones were effective? Use of corporal punishment, expressing disappointment in the child, loudly scolding, putting in time-out, and shaming the kid were all effective—effective at making the kids either more aggressive or anxious! That’s right, none of the discipline techniques were effective in any true sense of the word, unless you’re trying to raise a bully with mental health issues.
Interestingly, when a specific discipline tactic is considered more normal or typical in a particular country, the negative effect of the tactic on aggression or anxiety was still negative, but slightly less so. In other words, for example, if you live in a community or culture where shaming a kid is considered normal or appropriate, your child may become less anxious than a kid who is shamed in a context where the culture considers shaming unacceptable, but your kid will still become more anxious than if you never shamed him or her. It’s important to note that findings such as these generally replicate what is seen in American samples. In a nutshell, harsh parenting, or being critical, yelling, or using physical punishment, will jack your kids up,2,3,4 making them more aggressive, disobedient, anxious, and depressed (among other negative outcomes).
So does that mean you just shouldn’t discipline your child? Not at all—permissive parenting (i.e., parents who don’t use any discipline techniques) is bad too.5 It’s all about finding that right balance—one that teaches kids how to think for themselves and make appropriate decisions without being so heavy-handed they grow up resenting you or themselves. Sounds simple, huh? If it does, just wait until your three-old-year throws himself or herself down in the aisle of the supermarket screaming because you won’t buy some ice cream. For those who are already afraid, and you should be, stay tuned for some general guidelines for how to go about raising a healthy, well-behaved (eventually) child...
1Gershoff, E. T., Grogan-Kaylor, A., Lansford, J. E., Chang, L., Zelli, A., Deater-Deckard, K., & Dodge, K. A. (2010). Parent discipline practices in an international sample: Associations with child behaviors and moderation by perceived normativeness. Child Development, 81(2), 487-502.
2Fletcher, A. C., Walls, J. K., Cook, E. C., Madison, K. J., & Bridges, T. H. (2008). Parenting style as a moderator of associations between maternal disciplinary strategies and child well-being. Journal of Family Issues, 29(12), 1724-1744.
3McKee, L., Roland, E., Coffelt, N., Olson, A., Forehand, R., Massari, C., . . . Zens, M. (2007). Harsh discipline and child problem behaviors: The roles of positive parenting and gender. Journal of Family Violence, 22(4), 187-196.
4Rhoades, K. A., Leve, L. D., Harold, G. T., Neiderhiser, J. M., Shaw, D. S., & Reiss, D. (2011). Longitudinal pathways from marital hostility to child anger during toddlerhood: Genetic susceptibility and indirect effects via harsh parenting. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(2), 282-291.
5Baumrind, D., Larzelere, R. E., & Owens, E. B. (2010). Effects of preschool parents' power assertive patterns and practices on adolescent development. Parenting: Science and Practice, 10(3), 157-201.
Dr. Tim Loving - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role of friends and family during these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.