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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.” 

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.