How Should Parents Discipline? Finding Alternatives To Corporal Punishment

How should a parent deal with misbehavior? The study of corporal punishment offers insights.

by Dr. George W. Holden
Originally Published: 

Professor George W. Holden is the Chair of the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University, Texas where he focuses on parent-child relationships, parental cognitions, and discipline.

  • Corporal punishment is not an effective means of child discipline. Research shows that most children who are slapped or spanked misbehave again within minutes.
  • Avoiding corporal punishment is good, but research on the topic isn’t well known and there is no single and simple alternative approach available.
  • Positive Discipline advocates recommend using a “time-in” approach that calls for calming, quietly connecting, and talking to the child immediately after a transgression. To date, there have been no studies testing the effectiveness of this method.

The evidence that corporal punishment (such as spanking, smacking, or slapping) can impair child development is compelling and, at this point, overwhelming. More to the point for parents, accumulated research convincingly demonstrates that “positive child discipline” — including communicating openly and setting expectations — is much more effective than hitting a child. Still, as parents well know, not every misbehavior provides a teachable moment. Most parents think that punishment is a critical socialization tool and research has yet to establish what are the best practices. This uncertainty may be slowing the demise of corporal punishment.

Findings from over 1,200 studies consistently link corporal punishment to problems including aggression, antisocial behavior, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and even diminished cognitive capacities. Children who have been subjected to corporal punishment are at greater risk of problems in adulthood, such as substance and alcohol abuse.

And corporal punishment is not an effective means of child discipline. Although physical punishment stops on-going misbehavior in its tracks and evokes a strong emotional response from a child, neither a flat palm nor a chancla (slipper) promote good behavior. Violence does not teach a child alternative behaviors nor incentivize behavioral change. For example, in a study that my graduate students and I conducted, based on audio recordings of home interactions, we found that most children who were slapped or spanked were misbehaving again within minutes.

This story originally appeared in a different format on the Child & Family Blog, transforming research on cognitive, social, and emotional development and family dynamics into policy and practice.

All that said, removing corporal punishment from parents’ disciplinary toolbox is not an easy task, specifically in the United States, where some 65 percent of adults are in favor of the practice. That number has fallen over the last few decades, but not by much. And approval of corporal punishment is the most reliable predictor of whether parents actually hit their children.

Attitudes on corporal punishment change slowly for many reasons. Part of the explanation is that the research on the topic isn’t well known and because no single and simple alternative approach is available. That second impediment to change — parents not knowing how to discipline without corporal punishment — is harder to overcome. But a relatively new concept called positive child discipline can help.

That second impediment to change — parents not knowing how to discipline without corporal punishment — is harder to overcome. But a relatively new concept called positive child discipline can help.

Traditionally, parents have taken a “power and control” approach to childrearing. Children should comply and obey; if they do not, punishment, including corporal punishment, is considered necessary. Positive discipline posits that compliance and obedience should not be the goals of childrearing.

First conceptualized by the Austrian physician Alfred Adler in the 1930s, the Positive Discipline approach promotes the view that parents’ primary goal should be a loving and cooperative relationship with their children. If they achieve such a relationship, child compliance and good behavior will follow.

Adler believed parents need to respect their children as unique individuals with separate needs and desires. Punishments and rewards are to be avoided. When possible, parents should engage in “child-centered” behavior and teach their children about reciprocity — or taking turns with “give and take.” In this way, children will learn to cooperate happily without the fear of punishment or the need for a reward to motivation them.

To be clear, this approach does not ask parents to be permissive or simply to cater to a child’s wishes. Instead, it proposes that parents should maintain age-appropriate expectations for children, recognizing that it takes years for children’s brains to mature and to be able to self-regulate. That view reflects current brain research, which indicates that the frontal cortex is insufficiently developed for toddlers or preschoolers to regulate their behavior in the ways many parents want and, too often, expect. Children’s misbehavior may reflect their neurological immaturity, and not necessarily willful disobedience. Positive Discipline promotes the view that children should not be punished for behaving like children.

At least, that’s the theory. Since the 1970s, more than 100 books have been published by educators, parents and individuals espousing a Positive Discipline approach, but there’s actually little evidence for its effectiveness. Though I’m unaware of data disproving this approach, research only supports elements of the formulation. Being warm and responsive is good. Promoting cooperation is good. Avoiding corporal punishment is good. But there is little comprehensive, systematic research investigating the effectiveness of the child-rearing approach as a whole.

This lack of evidence represents a problem because it creates ambiguity. Consider, for instance, the “time out.” Strict adherents to Positive Discipline argue that sequestering a child, even for a short period of time, undermines communications and promoting positive relationships. Many advocates of the approach recommend instead using a “time-in” approach that calls for calming, quietly connecting, and then talking to the child immediately after a transgression – not an easy ask.

To date, there have been no studies testing the effectiveness of using “time in.” Which is why I am conducting one. Evidence that this disciplinary technique works would provide parents with a research-backed alternative to punishment. In essence, I’m hoping to positively influence parents just as mothers and fathers positively intercede with their children. But we need to get the data first.

This work could have global significance. Beginning with Sweden in 1979, 58 countries have now banned all forms of corporal punishment for children. The laws are largely motivated by the recognition of children’s right not to be hit — by anyone. Though national legislation banning corporal punishment in America is unlikely, change is certainly possible. But in order to replace the ineffectual and even damaging child-rearing approaches of the past, we need to offer a proven and effective approach we can confidently claim to be engineered for the children of the future.

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