How to discipline your child without resorting to spanking

AFTER SHE FOUNDED the Center for Effective Discipline, psychologist Nadine Block asked kids around the world what they thought about spanking. Many of their responses, collected in the book This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You, expressed pain that went far beyond a sore bottom. A 16-year-old boy wrote, “Why does he want to hit me? I never do anything bad. I stay out of his way. I feel real bad inside.” YourKidsDiscipline

Block says stories like this one illustrate why corporal punishment is the opposite of effective discipline. “The purpose of discipline is to help children learn to make good decisions,” she says. “If you spank children, chances are that stops that learning process. It may stop the
misbehavior for a moment, but it doesn’t engage the learning process.”

Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, agrees — and takes Block’s argument a step further. “I don’t even use the word ‘discipline’ anymore,” she says. “I say we’re moving beyond discipline, because people confuse discipline with punishment. And punishment, the research shows, backfires.”

So how can you spare the rod without spoiling your child? Markham and Block have some suggestions.

Focus on Learning
First, whether you use the word or not, remember that the goal of discipline is to teach kids how to make good decisions — not to punish them for bad decisions. “It’s the discipline that comes from inside that matters most in life,” Markham says. “Our children need to develop self-discipline if they’re going to be successful in pursuing their own goals and accomplishing anything they want to in life.”

This self-discipline will help carry them into adulthood.

Setting Limits
Mature adults, of course, know their own limits (even if they occasionally exceed them). They don’t stay out all night if they want to keep their jobs or eat whole tubs of Häagen-Dazs ice cream if they want to lose weight.

Since children haven’t learned self-discipline, Markham says they need adults to set limits for them — and these limits need to include a healthy dose of empathy. For example, if your son can’t play on the playground without hitting, you should remove him from the situation and say something like, “It was too hard for you to follow the rules. Tomorrow we’ll try again.”

Avoid Double Jeopardy
After a playground donnybrook, some parents might add a punishment, but Markham argues that removing the child from the situation is enough. “There’s no meanness,” she says. “It’s just that that’s the way the world works.”

Block agrees, using the familiar (and frightening) example of a child who has run into the street to chase a ball. “They’ll know you’re upset. You don’t have to scream at them or hit them. They can feel your fear,” she says.

Rely on Natural Consequences
Aside from issues of health and safety, Markham recommends letting kids learn from the natural consequences of their actions rather than from parent-imposed consequences.

For example, when a first-grader pushes other kids on the playground, he learns that nobody wants to play with him. His mom could reinforce that lesson by talking about how the other children felt when he was mistreating them. And Markham says she could also coach him to find another way to speak up for himself: “Hey, I was next in line; it’s my turn!”

Traditional punishments like taking away TV privileges would teach an entirely different lesson. In the latter case, the boy isn’t learning how the world works; he’s learning how his mom works. “If you’re involved in the consequence, then you’re giving them all sorts of unintended lessons,” she says.

Undo Damage
When kids need to undo damage they’ve caused (physical or otherwise), Block recommends involving them in the discussion of consequences. “That’s where you learn empathy and putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, because you have to think of a way to solve it,” she says. “To me, that’s a lot more useful than a punishment.”

Such a discussion could happen in what Markham calls a “time-in.” “You take them to a safe place — it might be their room, it might be the couch — and you sit down with them and say, ‘This is so hard. You’re so upset. I’m right here. You’re safe. You can be as upset as you want, and I will listen,’ ” she says.

Markham says time-ins are much better than time-outs. “When we put them on the naughty step or send them to their room, it is symbolic abandonment,” she says.

Find Ways to Say Yes
Finally, Markham recommends that parents find ways to say yes — even as they’re saying no. If it’s time to clean up the living room, you could say, “Yes, it’s time to clean up … and, yes, I will help you … and, yes, you can leave your Lego tower up … and, yes, if we hurry, we can read an extra story.” She adds, “Find a yes even in a no, even when you’re setting a limit. But ‘Yes, I love you’ is a part of it, no matter what.”

Which brings us back to Block’s book, This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You. In describing her parents’ positive approach to discipline, one 14-year-old girl said this: “My parents listen to what we have to say and give us advice. They are not happy if we misbehave but constantly remind us that they love us. My parents make us feel secure and loved.” What more could any parent want?

Reminder: The BSA’s Youth Protection guidelines state, “Corporal punishment is never permitted” in Scouting.


  1. “For example, when a first-grader pushes other kids on the playground, he learns that nobody wants to play with him. ”

    Sorry, but this idealistic, utopian nonsense. I have been there when the first grader has pushed another kid down. Then I watched a couple of others cheer him on, while laughing at the kid on the ground. I don’t believe the pushy first grader learned, that “nobody wants to play with him”. In fact the poor kid on the ground may be the one at risk struggling to find friends, while the aggressor has become the leader of the pack. He doesn’t care about the victim’s feelings, even if you talk to him about it. Here’s what he knows: “The other kids either like me or fear me. The adults may talk to me and/or ground me, but I’m still the man.”

    I know psychologists have frowned upon spanking for years. And they have come up with all kinds of convoluted discussions that you need to have with your toddler when they are willfully disobedient or physically abusive of one of their siblings or friends. Yippee.

    It’s amazing to me how much more effective a brief stinging sensation applied to the butt can be compared to repeated psychological monologues and/or years of mind altering drugs. Not only does this apply to the moment at hand, but to the long term as well.

    And yes, I’m now going go to refer to scripture.
    Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
    Colossians 3:21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
    Proverbs 13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
    Hebrews 12:11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

    • Rather than quoting scripture to introduce violence in discipline, I would ask you consider scientific studies that find violence is not needed to discipline or teach children. Scream Free Parenting is a good place to start. If you need to hit someone to get your message across, your communication skills need improvement. It says, “I’m not capable to getting my message to you, so I’ll just hit you”. I’m sure you can do better than that.

  2. This article is a joke, right?
    Scouting Magazine should stick to Scouting and skip the pop-psychology proselytizing. BSA has had a “no corporal punishment” rule for many years, now, so to whom is this article directed? Parents? Is BSA now telling us they know better how to parent than parents?
    Kids don’t need discipline? Really? Anyone who espouses such nonsense has never spent any time raising or educating children or are ignoring the disastrous results of non-discipline in our culture. The Dr. Spocks have been telling us since the 60’s to stop telling our kids “no”. It hasn’t worked, and it won’t.
    I’d love to pick apart the plentiful fallacies in the article but have better things to do with my time.

    Andy Malchert
    Committee Member
    Troop 4015, Montesano, Washington

  3. Wow, this is crapola. I agree…the kid that pushes other kids to the ground unfortunately usually becomes some kind of playground idol! I was mildly spanked as a child, and I know my parents did it out if love and the need to instill respect for parents and authority, not out of anger. I did not become stunted or rebellious or emotionally damaged. I am intelligent, college-educated, fun-loving, family-oriented, and happy in every aspect of my life. My sister, also mildly spanked when needed, proudly joined the military, raises 2 nature-loving book-reading ball-playing boys, loves animals and nature, and travels the country as a happy successful equine dentist! My brother, guess what, spanked a LOT more than us girls….he deserved it lol…owns 2 houses, is in Mensa, runs his own successful business, is straight edged as they come, is the life of the party, and loves his wife and his life! I’m glad my parents spanked…telling me “no” and putting me in a corner would have just said to me that I can keep doing bad things and touching the hot stove and poking the dog in the eyes with sticks and the worst thing that will happen is I get to sit in a chair for 5 minutes. Thank you mom and dad for instilling in me respect, love, caring, and values! It was worth a sore hiney every now and then!

  4. I agree with these other comments that this whole article (and the beliefs behind it) is a load of manure. We have gone from generations where respect and thinking of others was important to a generation where entitlement is at the top and “I’m most important” is the line of thinking. By not saying “no” when appropriate and necessary, parents have produced children who think they can do what they want. My wife has been an elementary (and special ed) teacher for 38 years and she is dismayed by the changes that have taken place. She has related how today’s students, when told to do something by a teacher, respond with “no, I don’t want to” and expect that they will be told, “OK, you don’t have to do that worksheet, just sit there and play on your smartphone.” Sorry, it doesn’t work that way but we are now reaping what has been sown by these “experts” on child raising and the last several generations of parents who bought into those ideas.

  5. I happened to really enjoy this article. I am grateful for all the parents out there trying to turn around the vicious cycle of violence & put peaceful parenting first. I’ve learned first-hand that punishment used as discipline is a total failure & the ante always needs to be upped in order to maintain an “obedient” child. Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece & for contributing to the peaceful parenting movement.

  6. Father of three. All three kids were different. Spanking when needed was an effective form of discipline for us. The title alone told me that this article would be one-sided with an agenda. Child abuse is bad. No one advocates child abuse. Discipline is good. If you don’t want to spank your kids then don’t. Otherwise, use spanking rarely but use it when needed, and do it in an appropriate manner. There’s nothing wrong with spanking (and plenty of good) when done appropriately.

    • Equating spanking with violence is an extreme view. I’ve seen children raised without spanking, and they are far less self-controlled (tend to violence against others) than children who are required to learn self control, even if it takes a few swats on the behind sometimes. Athoritative parenting is far preferable than Permissive parenting and the results speak for themselves.
      I think some of this anti-spaking mantra is an outgrowth of the peace movement, where the aim is to pacify the whole world. It ain’t going to happen, and it just hands more power to people who promote evil. Conduct your social experiments somewhere else.
      I think an article like this in a Scouting magazine is inappropriate.

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