Child discipline

Child discipline

Child discipline is the set of rules, rewards and punishments administered to teach self control, increase desirable behaviors and decrease undesirable behaviors in children. In its most general sense, discipline refers to systematic instruction given to a disciple. To discipline thus means to instruct a person to follow a particular code of conduct.[1] While the purpose of child discipline is to develop and entrench desirable social habits in children, the ultimate goal is to foster sound judgement and morals so the child develops and maintains self discipline throughout the rest of his/her life.

Child discipline is a topic that draws from a wide range of interested fields, such as parents, the professional practice of behavior analysis, developmental psychology, social work, and various religious perspectives. Because the values, beliefs, education, customs and cultures of people vary so widely, along with the age and temperament of the child, methods of child discipline vary widely.

In western society, there has been debate in recent years over the use of corporal punishment for children in general, and increased attention has been given to the concept of "positive parenting" where good behaviour is encouraged and rewarded.[2]


Historical perspectives

Historical research suggests that there has always a been a great deal of individual variation in methods of discipline and thus no century was notably cruel or kind.[3]

Biblical views

The Book of Proverbs from the Bible mention the importance of disciplining children, as opposed to leaving them neglected or unruly, in several verses. Interpretation of these verses varies, as do many passages from the Bible, from literal to metaphorical. The most often paraphrased is from Proverbs 13:24 "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." (King James Version) Other passages that mention the 'rod' are Proverbs 23:14, "Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell," and Proverbs 29:15, "The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame."[4]

Although the Bible's lessons have been paraphrased for hundreds of years, the modern phrase, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," was coined by Samuel Butler, in Hudibras, a mock heroic narrative poem, published in 1663. The Contemporary English Version of Proverbs 13:24 is: 'If you love your children you will correct them; if you don't love them, you won't correct them'.

Medieval views

Medieval schoolboy birched on the bare buttocks

The primary guidelines followed by medieval parents in training their children were from the Bible. Scolding was considered ineffectual, and cursing a child was a terrible thing.[5] In general, the use of corporal punishment was as a disciplinary action taken to shape behavior, not a pervasive dispensing of beatings for no reason. Corporal punishment was undoubtedly the norm. The medieval world was a dangerous place, and it could take harsh measures to prepare a child to live in it. Pain was the medieval way of illustrating that actions had consequences.[6]

Influence of John Locke

In his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding English physician and philosopher John Locke argued that the child resembled a blank tablet (tabula rasa) at birth, and was not inherently full of sin. In his 1693 Some Thoughts Concerning Education he suggested that the task of the parent was to build in the child the strong body and habits of mind that would allow the capacity of reason to develop, and that parents could reward good behavior with their esteem and punish bad behavior with disgrace – the withdrawal of parental approval and affection - as opposed to beatings.[7]

The twentieth century

In the early twentieth century, child-rearing experts abandoned a romantic view of childhood and advocated formation of proper habits to discipline children. A 1914 U.S. Children's Bureau pamphlet, Infant Care, urged a strict schedule and admonished parents not to play with their babies.[citation needed] John B. Watson's 1924 Behaviorism argued that parents could train malleable children by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, and by following precise schedules for food, sleep, and other bodily functions.[citation needed]

Although such principles began to be rejected as early as the 1930s, they were firmly renounced in the 1946 best-seller Baby and Child Care, by pediatrician Benjamin Spock, which told parents to trust their own instincts and to view the child as a reasonable, friendly human being. Dr. Spock revised his first edition to urge more parent-centered discipline in 1957, but critics blamed his popular book for its permissive attitude during the youth rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s.[7]

American psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs developed a pragmatic method for understanding the purposes of reprehensible behaviour in children and for stimulating cooperative behaviour without punishment or reward. He suggested that human misbehavior is the result of feeling a lack of belonging to one's social group. When this happens the child acts from one of four "mistaken goals": attention, power, revenge or avoidance (inadequacy). His model predicts that children would learn to cooperate reasonably without being penalized or rewarded if they feel that they are valuable contributors.[citation needed]

The return of the rod

Following the turbulent and permissive era of the 1960s and early 1970s, American evangelical Christian James Dobson sought the return of a more conservative society and aimed to promote Biblical parenting. In 1977 he published the first of several parenting books, Dare to Discipline, which advocated spanking of children up to age eight and promoted discipline which would allow "the God of our fathers to be introduced to our beloved children."[8]

In a day of widespread drug usage, immorality, civil disobedience, vandalism, and violence, we must not depend on hope and luck to fashion the critical attitudes we value in our children. That unstructured technique was applied during the childhood of the generation which is now in college, and the outcome has been quite discouraging. Permissiveness has not just been a failure; it's been a disaster![8]

Dobson's position is controversial. As early as 1985 The New York Times stated that "most child-care experts today disapprove of physical punishment."[9]

As of 2011 there are hundreds of books, websites, and articles giving varying parenting advice and opinions. While opinion-givers may not agree on the best way to rear children or the best methods of discipline, some recommend consistency for effective discipline[citation needed]. Many also discourage spanking and other physical methods of punishment.[citation needed]

Corporal punishment

Legality of corporal punishment in the United States
Legality of corporal punishment in Europe
  Corporal punishment prohibited in schools and the home
  Corporal punishment prohibited in schools only
  Corporal punishment not prohibited

In many cultures, parents have historically had the right to spank their children when appropriate. Attitudes and legislation in some countries have changed in recent years, particularly in continental Europe. Domestic corporal punishment has now (2009) been outlawed in 24 countries around the world, most of them in Europe or Latin America, beginning with Sweden in 1979. Thirty years after Sweden's ban, official figures show that just 10 percent of Swedish children are spanked or otherwise struck by their parents today. More than 90 percent of Swedish children were smacked prior to the ban.[10] The Swedish law does not actually lay down any legal punishment for smacking but requires social workers to support families with problems.[10]

In North America, Britain and much of the rest of the English-speaking world, corporal punishment remains highly controversial. In the United States, corporal punishment of children by their parents remains lawful in all 50 states.

The effectiveness of corporal punishment is disputed. Those opposed to spanking[who?] argue that other methods of child discipline are both more humane and more effective than physical punishment such as spanking. Some studies have suggested that spanking may lead to more misbehaviour in the long run, and some researchers have linked what they describe as "authoritarian" child-rearing practices with children who withdraw, lack spontaneity, and have lesser evidence of conscience.[11][12][13][14]

A 2006 retrospective report study in New Zealand showed that physical punishment of children was quite common in the 1970s and 80s, with 80% of the sample reporting some kind of corporal punishment from parents, at some time during childhood. Among this sample, 29% reported being hit with an empty hand, 45% with an object, and 6% were subjected to serious physical abuse. The study noted that abusive physical punishment tended to be given by fathers and often involved striking the child's head or torso instead of the buttocks or limbs.[15]

Stress positions

Stress positions, such as murga punishment in South Asia or forced prolonged kneeling (sometimes on beans or salt to increase discomfort), are used as punishment for children.

Non-physical discipline

Non-physical discipline consists of both punitive and non-punitive methods, but does not include any forms of corporal punishment such as smacking or spanking. There is an active effort on the part of parenting professionals and organizations to shift traditional parental use of corporal punishment to non-physical methods.[citation needed] The regular use of any single form of discipline becomes less effective when used too often, a process psychologists call habituation. Thus, no single method is considered to be for exclusive use.


A common method of child discipline is sending the child away from the family or group after misbehavior. Children may be told to stand in the corner ("corner time") or may be sent to their rooms for a period of time. A time-out involves isolating or separating a child for a few minutes, and is intended to give an over-excited child time to calm down.

Time-out, painting by Carl Larsson

Alternatively, time-outs have been recommended[by whom?] as a time for parents to separate feelings of anger toward the child for their behavior and to develop a plan for discipline.

Time-outs are also frequently used as a punishment, however, many experts (such as Alfie Kohn) do not advocate this.[16]


Grounding is a form of punishment, usually for older children, preteens and teenagers, that restricts their movement outside of the home, such as visiting friends or using the car. Sometimes it is combined with the withdrawal of privileges.[citation needed]


Scolding involves reproving or criticizing a child's negative behavior and/or actions. Just as verbal praise may be a powerful reinforcer for most children, verbal scolding may be a sufficient punishment on its own.[citation needed]

Non-punitive discipline

While punishments may be of limited value in consistently influencing rule-related behavior, non-punitive discipline techniques have been found to have greater impact on children who have begun to master their native language.[17] Non-punitive discipline (also known as empathic discipline and positive discipline) is an approach to child-rearing that does not use any form of punishment. It is about loving guidance, and requires parents to have a strong relationship with their child so that the child responds to gentle guidance as opposed to threats and punishment. According to Dr. Laura Markham, the most effective discipline strategy is to make sure your child wants to please you.[18]

Non-punitive discipline also excludes systems of "manipulative" rewards. Instead, a child's behaviour is shaped by "democratic interaction" and by deepening parent-child communication. The reasoning behind it is that while punitive measures may stop the problem behavior in the short term, by themselves they do not provide a learning opportunity that allows children the autonomy to change their own behaviour.[19] Although limits are set and rules enforced, the methods of discipline involved are based on whether it strengthens or weakens a parent’s relationship with the child. Many studies show that punishment makes children feel worse about themselves, undermines the relationship with the child and sets up power struggles, which all contribute to make the children act worse.[citation needed] Punishments such as time-outs may be seen as banishment and humiliation. Consequences as a form of punishment are not recommended, but natural consequences are considered to be possibly worthwhile learning experiences provided there is no risk of lasting harm.[18]

Positive discipline is a general term that refers to both non-violent discipline and non-punitive discipline. Criticizing, discouraging, creating obstacles and barriers, blaming, shaming, using sarcastic or cruel humor, or using physical punishment are some negative disciplinary methods used with young children. Any parent may occasionally do any of these things, but doing them more than once in a while may lead to low self-esteem becoming a permanent part of the child's personality.[20]

Authors in this field include Aletha Solter, Alfie Kohn, Pam Leo, Haim Ginott, Thomas Gordon, Lawrence J. Cohen, and John Gottman.

Essential aspects

Positive discipline is just a part of the positive parenting concept and is based on minimizing the child's frustrations and misbehavior rather than giving punishments. The foundation of this style of discipline is encouraging children to feel good about themselves and building the parent's relationship with the child so the child wants to please the parent. To achieve this, children need some time with parents every day that they can enjoy and feel good about. Children recognize a parent's love through the time spent with them. Discipline and teaching work best within such positive relationships.[21] Other important aspects are reasonable and age-appropriate expectations, feeding healthy foods and providing enough rest, giving clear instructions which may need to be repeated, looking for the causes of any misbehavior and making adjustments, and building routines. Children are helped by knowing what is happening in their lives. Having some predictability about their day without necessarily being regimental will help reduce frustration and misbehavior.[21]


Praise and rewards

Praise (encouraging words) and intangible rewards (hugs, time with the child, etc.) is an effective method of encouraging good behavior.[citation needed] Simply giving the child spontaneous expressions of appreciation or acknowledgement when they are not misbehaving will act as a reinforcer for good behaviour.

It is very common for children who are otherwise ignored by their parents to turn to misbehaviour as a way of seeking attention.[22] An example is a child screaming for attention. Parents often inadvertently reward the bad behavior by immediately giving them the attention, thereby reinforcing it. On the other hand, parents may wait until the child calms down and speaks politely, then reward the more polite behavior with the attention.

Natural consequences

Natural consequences involve children learning from their own mistakes. For instance, if a child forgets to bring his lunch to school, he will find himself hungry later. A variation on this is offering controlled choices, either of which the parent must be agreeable to. For example, a child may be given a choice to have a nap now and stay up later, or play now and go to bed early.[citation needed]


Children who are punished without further reasoning are more likely to repeat the offense and may simply make more of an effort not to get caught.[citation needed]

Internal discipline and democracy

Main articles: Discipline in Sudbury Model Democratic Schools and Sudbury Valley School

Sudbury model democratic schools, attended by children ages 4 to 19, claim that popularly-based authority can maintain order more effectively than dictatorial authority for governments and schools alike.

Furthermore they emphasize that much more important than the externals of order is the question of the sources of internal discipline: how does an individual come to develop the inner strength and character that endows his life with order and coherence, an independent person appropriate to a free republic of co-equal citizens, capable of making decisions within a rational, self-consistent framework—a person treating and being treated with respect?

They affirm that the hallmark of the independent person is the ability to bear responsibility and since there is no way of teaching or training another person for self-sufficiency, there is no technique for obtaining or transmitting these traits. Hence, the only way a person becomes responsible for himself is for him to be responsible for himself, with no reservation or qualifications. Thence the need to permit children, at home and school, freedom of choice, freedom of action, and freedom to bear the results of action—the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility.[23][24][25]


Parents may feel that positive parenting and non-punitive discipline is too permissive and will lead to unruly and disrespectful children. They also argue that there is no recourse for parents of misbehaving children to effectively control their misbehavior. Deliberate misbehavior, they say, must be firmly punished to prevent its recurrence.[citation needed]

Proponents of non-punitive discipline argue that children who misbehave often do it not out of malice, but out of ignorance, boredom or frustration, and simply need to be taught, listened to, or redirected. They argue that a close and loving relationship is vital and if there is such a relationship, the child will want to please the parent and will better accept rules and listen to reason. They also feel that punishments and smacks weaken the relationship which will lead to more problem behavior.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Papalia, D. E.; Wendkos-Olds, S.; Duskin-Feldman, R. (2006). A Child's World: Infancy Through Adolescence (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 
  2. ^ "Encouraging better behavior - A practical guide to positive parenting.". National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, United Kingdom. 2003. Retrieved 25 March 2008. [dead link]
  3. ^ Pollock, Linda A. (1983). "5". Forgotten children: parent-child relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521250099. 
  4. ^ "Eight Misconceptions About Spanking". Learn The Bible. Retrieved 19 September 2009. 
  5. ^ Hanawalt, Barbara (1986). The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. Oxford University Press. p. 182. 
  6. ^ "The Medieval Child, Part 4: The Playful Years". Retrieved 21 September 2009. 
  7. ^ a b "Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society - Discipline". Retrieved 21 September 2009. 
  8. ^ a b Dobson, James (1977). Dare to Discipline. Bantam Books. ISBN 0553228412. 
  9. ^ Wright, Susan (19 June 1985). "Parents and Experts Split on Spanking". The New York Times: p. C9. 
  10. ^ a b Sullivan, Tom (5 October 2009). "In 30 years without spanking, are Swedish children better behaved?". The Christian Science Monitor (Boston). 
  11. ^ Straus M.A. et al, "Spanking by Parents and Subsequent Antisocial Behaviour by Children", in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 1997; 151:761-767.
  12. ^ Brezina, T. "Teenage violence toward parents as an adaptation to family strain: Evidence from a national survey of male adolescents", in Youth & Society 1999; 30:416-444.
  13. ^ Simons, R.L. et al, "Socialization in the family of origin and male dating violence: A protective study", in Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1998; 60:467-78.
  14. ^ Maccoby, E.E., & Martin, J.A. (1983). "Socialization in the context of the family: Parent-child interaction", in P.H. Mussen (ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology (4th ed.), vol. 4: Socialization, personality, and social development, edited by E.M. Heatherington, 1-101. New York: Wiley.
  15. ^ Millichamp, Jane; Martin J & Langley J (2006). "On the receiving end: young adults describe their parents’ use of physical punishment and other disciplinary measures during childhood". The New Zealand Medical Journal 119 (1228): U1818. PMID 16462926. 
  16. ^ "Unconditional Parenting" by Alfie Kohn (2005)
  17. ^ Toner, Ignatius J. (1986). "Punitive and non-punitive discipline and subsequent rule-following in young children". Child and Youth Care Forum 15 (1): 27–37. doi:10.1007/BF01118991. 
  18. ^ a b Markham, Dr. Laura. "How to Use Positive Discipline". Retrieved 28 October 2009. 
  19. ^ "Non-punitive discipline". Inside Out Counselling. Retrieved 28 October 2009. 
  20. ^ "Positive discipline". 20 May 2008. Retrieved 28 October 2009. 
  21. ^ a b "The Nanny Show and you". Parenting and Child Health Services South Australia. Retrieved 1 November 2009. 
  22. ^ "How can I discipline my children?". London: BBC. Retrieved 13 July 2009. 
  23. ^ The Crisis in American Education — An Analysis and a Proposal, The Sudbury Valley School (1970), Law and Order: Foundations of Discipline (pg. 49-55). Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  24. ^ Greenberg, D. (1987) The Sudbury Valley School Experience Back to Basics. Accessed January 10, 2010.
  25. ^ Greenberg, D (1987), Child Rearing. Retrieved January 10, 2010.

Further reading

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