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Discipline Without Fear

Proponents for corporeal punishment (spanking, paddling, kneeling on grits or rice, etc.) often claim that it taught them obedience and respect for elders when they were young. If it was good enough for them, they think, it’s good enough for their kids. In fact, studies have shown that about 50% of U.S. families do use physical punishment.

But just because half of families use it doesn’t make it a useful or effective tool for managing children’s behavior. Although it may make a lasting impression on children who experience such punishments, there are many negative consequences that should be every parent’s concern.

It damages family relationships: There is a difference between respect and fear. Children who are physically punished become fearful of the punisher. That may keep them in line but it also puts a distance between the child and the parent and diminishes mutual trust. A child who is afraid of being physically punished isn’t likely to tell their parent when they’ve made a mistake or done something wrong. The child’s priority is to stay on the good side of the punisher, not to look for help.

It can evolve into abuse: Where does punishment stop and abuse begin? When parents get wound up and out of control, they can cross a line. What started as a swat on the behind can escalate – particularly if the child is defiant or seems unimpressed by the initial punishment.  

It can set up or continue a cycle of abuse: Studies show that adults who were physically punished by their parents are more likely to abuse their children or their partner and are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.

It interferes with true learning: Kids can’t learn when they are afraid. They simply can’t store new information when emotions are intense. Yes, they may learn to reflexively avoid the situation in which they were punished. But they don’t understand why the behavior was dangerous or against social rules. They are too busy steeling themselves against pain or defending themselves against blame and anger.

It leads to bullying: Kids do learn what they live. When parents model physical harm as a way to get their way, it gives the message that hitting and hurting is okay – as long as you are bigger. A study reported in Pediatrics showed that adolescents whose parents used corporal punishment to discipline them were more likely to engage in fighting, bullying, and victimization of others.

What to do instead

Discipline comes from the same root word as “disciple”. It means ‘to teach”. To be effective guides for their children, parents need to move away from a judicial model of managing kids to a teaching model.

Foster a positive relationship: The relationship is everything. Love is more than a feeling. It is the active investment of time, energy and care in the child. That means going beyond the basics of providing food and shelter. It means listening to them, sharing their interests, explaining new experiences and being empathic when they are in pain.

Emphasize learning positive behaviors: The more positive ways a child knows how to get attention or to show their independences, the less likely the child will resort to the negative. Teach them appropriate ways to ask for your attention. Whenever you can, empower your kids to do things on their own or to try something new.

Catch them when they are good: Be sure to comment on positive behavior. Show them your approval for the many times each day that they do what is right or helpful or generous.

Calm everyone down when kids do something wrong: The first move when disciplining (teaching) a child is to calm yourself down. Your child can’t really hear you if you are yelling or threatening. The second move is to calm the child so she can take in why you are upset and what needs to be done about it.

Use natural consequences whenever you can: Instead of imposing a punishment, calmly and regretfully point out the consequence that is already there. For example: Kids who break a toy no longer have it. If a child picks on a sibling, the sibling doesn’t want to play anymore. Refusing to eat dinner means the child will get hungry later. But here’s the important part: Effective teaching always includes a chance to try again. After a reasonable amount of time, find a way to let the child try again. Fix the toy together if you can. Help the siblings figure out how to get along. Let your child experience the hunger, then offer a healthy snack.

Use logical consequences when you have to: A logical consequence doesn’t flow naturally from the problem behavior but is instead imposed by an adult. If a child spills food on the floor, for example, a natural consequence is that you now have a messy floor. That doesn’t teach your child to be more careful. A logical consequence makes more sense. Hand the child a sponge and matter-of-factly tell him that people who spill things have to clean it up. Logical consequences are most effective if there is a clear connection between the misbehavior and the consequence and when that connection is calmly explained with a chance to try again built in. For example: If you have established a device-free zone during dinner and your children won’t put away their phones during the meal, the logical consequence is to remove the devices. After a few days, give them the opportunity to show they have learned self-control by giving their devices back.

Learn how to calmly control tantrums: Tantrumming children need external control because their internal controls have fallen apart. Hold your child securely on your lap. Put his legs between your crossed legs. Hold his arms firmly but gently. Calmly tell her that you will let go when she can get herself under control. Then stop talking. You can’t reason with an out of control child. You don’t want her to learn that a neat way to get your undivided attention is to collapse and scream. Just calmly and firmly hold her. When the tantrum subsides, then you can let go to talk about what happened and what to do differently next time she gets upset.

Use “time-outs” wisely: Time-outs are not intended to be a sentence to the “jail” of a corner or their room. Instead, they are a form of logical consequences.

If a time-out is too long or over-used, a child will feel abandoned and afraidwhich guarantees that the child won’t learn anything from it. Stick with the guideline of 1 minute of time-out per year of age of the child. (A 3 year old, for example, gets a 3 minute time-out.) To keep the child receptive to learning, it’s crucial that you are calm and matter-of-fact. After the time-out, calmly talk with the child about what he or she could have done differently.

Discipline Without Fear


Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.


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APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Discipline Without Fear. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 16, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/discipline-without-fear/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Oct 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Oct 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.