Health Beat: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Published 8:10 pm Saturday, April 26, 2014

You might think that April’s observation of Child Abuse Prevention Month doesn’t apply to you, but it’s a good time to examine discipline in all its forms: the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly.  Most of us discipline poorly from time to time without even realizing it.  Understanding effective discipline gives you more control, so you won’t lose it with your kids.

First, let’s look at discipline that doesn’t work.  Yes, I’m talking about spanking, but hear me out before you dismiss me as a discipline softie.  You see, spanking under the right circumstances can be effective, but for everyday parenting, it’s a bad idea.  The notion that “kids these days” need to more spankings is simply not true.  Families who rely heavily on spanking are often quite hostile toward each other much of the time.  Anger does not equal discipline; physical correction done in anger makes the problem worse.  If you spank, reserve it only for dangerous behaviors, such as running into the street or turning on the stove.

After you cut down the spanking, consider:  does your discipline teach the child what to do?  Just because you tell a kid to sit down and shut up doesn’t mean he’s learning what he needs to know.  He might understand to stay out of the way for a minute, but not why he was in the way to begin with, or how to keep from getting underfoot again.  For discipline to work, it must teach the child what he can do, as well as what he can’t do.

Next, remember, all behavior happens for a reason.  Effective discipline anticipates what the child is trying to get from that annoying behavior.  For example, a kid running through the house probably needs to be outside for a while.  A kid climbing the counters might be trying to get his own drink without bothering you.  Now, don’t tolerate poor behavior just because the child’s intentions are good.  Instead, figure out why the child is behaving a certain way, and help him meet his need appropriately.

Finally, the most important key to effective discipline is being an active, not passive, parent.  Many people, myself included, talk their children to death.  We remind, beg, and coax when we should take action.  For me, taking immediate action is hard, usually because I am busy with other things, but sometimes because I’m simply too lazy to get out of my chair.  Kids need to see that their behavior is important enough to make you stop what you’re doing, even if it means getting off the couch!

Discipline isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be miserable for everyone.  It’s hard for us to respect people who treat us rudely, and kids are no different.  Kids won’t learn respect if they don’t receive it from us.  Remember, fear and respect are not the same thing.  Frequent harsh discipline is not only unnecessary—it can be harmful.

Families who use physical punishment frequently, especially in the absence of other effective discipline strategies, are at much higher risk of abusing their children.  When you spank for every transgression, or yell insults during every little dispute, you’re setting yourself up for a host of problems.  Since this type of discipline isn’t effective, the child’s behavior often becomes worse instead of better.  Then, frustrated parents continue to ramp up the punishment, increasing the chance they will hit too hard next time.  What’s worse, kids in these families become angry and resentful, and are at higher risk for aggressive behavior toward other kids at school.  As they get older, they are more likely to become aggressive toward the rest of the world as well.


While the majority of us don’t abuse our kids, we’ve all had our moments when we over-react out of anger, then regret it later.  Flying by the seat of your pants when parenting makes you inconsistent and unpredictable, and kids don’t learn anything useful from that.  A little forethought puts you in charge of the moment, so the literal “seat of the pants” discipline won’t be necessary.

Tamara Stevens, MA, LPA, HSP-PA, is a child psychologist at Washington Pediatrics and can be reached by calling 946-4134.