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Science Says: 3 Most Effective Ways to Punish a Child

Sad family with conflict

Parents, are you listening?

The way parents should discipline their children is a very polarizing topic. Some people think parents should always speak positively to their children, while others advocate firm discipline.

It’s difficult to know which way to go when your toddler has thrown their plate of chicken fingers onto the ground and is scream-whining at the top of their lungs.

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An article on Medical Daily talks about a new study that may have the answer. While positive parenting tactics work well in many cases, time-outs and other punishments are more effective over time for children who have become defiant or violent.

“By investigating how the effectiveness of disciplinary responses vary by the type of noncompliance in toddlers, this study showed how to reconcile the contradictory recommendations of positive parenting and behavioral parent training with each other,” wrote Dr. Robert Larzelere, a professor at Oklahoma State University, and Sada Knowles, a doctoral student in the study.

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A voluntary sample of 102 mothers provided detail descriptions of 5 discipline episodes including hitting, whining, defiance, or just not listening.

After analyzing the mothers’ responses, the researchers discovered that the most effective disciplining tactic depended in part on a child’s behavior, and also whether the behavior was short-term versus long-term:

These were the top 3 most successful disciplining tactics:

  1. Compromise. The winner of the most effective way to discipline a child was offering compromises, and was found to work no matter how badly the child was misbehaving.
  2. Reasoning. This works best in the case of slightly annoying behaviors such as whining, but weren’t effective with defiant children or children that hit.
  3. Time-outs and taking something away. These worked best when stronger punishments were needed.

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However, if mothers used compromise as their go-to punishment when dealing with a defiant or violent child, they’d encounter more bad behavior, not less. Reasoning was the most effective way to discipline a child over a longer time span with the same types of children.

Strong punishments (such as time-outs) cut down on the bad behavior in the most oppositional kids, but only if used less than 16 percent of the time.

Remember: there are no bad kids, just bad behavior. And as long as you’re consistent with your punishment, actually try to communicate with your child on their level, and are aware of whether a punishment strategy is working or not, you’ll have a lot more success when handing out punishments.

This guest article originally appeared on The 3 Most Effective Ways To Punish A Child, According To Science.

Science Says: 3 Most Effective Ways to Punish a Child

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APA Reference
Guest Author, P. (2018). Science Says: 3 Most Effective Ways to Punish a Child. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 Sep 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.