5 Myths About Child Discipline

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Parents have been desperate to control their children for generations, millennia, even eons if you want to get all arc of history about it. That impulse has historically yielded mixed results and strange traditions. Methods dreamt up by frantic adults get the placebo effect stamp of approval and become cultural norms. But received wisdom isn’t necessarily wisdom at all. Sometimes we’re given hand-me-down myths.

When it comes to discipline, these are the most prominent and pernicious of the bunch.

A Slap On The Bottom Never Hurt Anyone

Spanking is, thankfully, a less common practice than it used to be, but the notion that corporal punishment can be effective persists. As recently as 2014, 76 percent of men and 65 percent of women agreed spanking was okay. That’s despite overwhelming evidence from experts saying that the disciplinary tactic is ineffective and, in fact, counterproductive.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology looked at 50 years of research data linked to over 160,000 kids who had been disciplined by being struck “on the behind or extremities” with an open hand. Based on meta-analysis the researchers found that spanking rarely achieved the long-term goal of altering bad behavior. However, it was correlated to outcomes including poor mental health, aggression, and antisocial tendencies. Even more damning: The outcomes were nearly identical to those related to childhood abuse.

dad scolding kid

Experts have long suggested parents just need to knock it off already, even if they took some wallops and “turned out fine.” According to New York Times bestselling authors of No Drama Discipline Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, physical contact is a very powerful tool. But when things get heated, instead of reaching for a paddle, they suggest getting down to the kid’s level and disarming them with a gentle touch to help them focus.

Shouting Gets a Kid’s Attention

When a kid’s behavior has gone off the rails, it can often feel like they’ve retreated to some dark, chaotic space behind their eyes. Given the fact you can’t fire a flare gun, or shake them, to bring them back to the real world, the obvious thing to do is shout at them, right?

Nope.

It turns out that disrupting a child’s behavior is better accomplished by getting close and getting quiet. That’s because at some point all the hollering becomes normalized; the kid will eventually feel that’s just the way people talk. But when a parent gets quiet, the kid can’t hear them until they stop their own shenanigans. And they eventually will.

But parenting experts say calm needs to be coupled with quiet. Anger and frustration will only serve to create a feedback loop of emotion. That’s not a good look at home. And it’s for sure not a good look in the LaLaLoopsy aisle at Target. But some calm close-talking allows for an eventual detente.

Strict Parents Raise Well-Behaved Kids

There’s a popular idea that the only way to raise a good kid is by being a total hardass. But the my-way-or-the-highway bit doesn’t encourage kids to develop empathy. After all, their parents aren’t modeling it.

Even a former Marine drill Instructor understands that making demands of little kids is unproductive. According to toddler-dad Master Sergeant Chris Lopez, who is a master of discipline in any light, explanation and redirection present the best way forward. He avoids home conflicts through patience and a huge amount of talk about why things need to happen the way they do.

punished kid on stairs

Saying Yes Equals Failing

There are times when saying yes is a completely reasonable strategy to avoid unnecessary conflicts that force parents into poorly considered discipline. A parent’s main concern should be their child’s health and safety. After all, they’re dealing with a small human with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex struggling to regulate wants and desires.

Parents can use those desires to achieve their desired outcomes by saying “yes.”  But the important part is to make sure the yes is connected to a condition. So rather than pure acquiescence to a demand, the agreement becomes a “Yes, when … ” or “Yes, if … ” The conditions just need to be somewhat related to the request with a brief explanation as to why the conditions are required.

Don’t Negotiate With Children

There is a way to negotiate with a child that will lead to better behavioral outcomes. But the idea is that the kid isn’t the one holding the cards, even though they feel like they’re getting the deal of the century.

Parents should start with the age-old hostage negotiator tactic of using empathy to build a connection to their kid in the moment. It’s not hard to acknowledge the difficulty of waiting for dessert. Everyone has a hard time waiting for dessert.

The next step is to offer a range of acceptable options. Parents continue to control the terms here, but the kid suddenly feels like they are in control because they have been given agency to choose. Little do they know they’re playing right into the parent’s hands.

It looks like negotiation and feels like negotiation to a kid. But’s it’s just plain manipulation. And it’s not a myth that it has always worked.

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