Should I Spank My Child? From Time-Outs to Digital Grounding, What Forms of Discipline Are Most Effective?

Updated on March 14, 2018
letstalkabouteduc profile image

I'm a credentialed teacher with a master's degree in special education. I spent many years teaching preschool and kindergarten.

As a former kindergarten teacher, I get irritated by parents who co-opt discipline methods used in the classroom, such as time-outs, and implement them with their kids at home. I find it annoying because these moms and dads aren't using common sense to deal with their children in an individualized and compassionate manner, but are doing what's quick, easy, and convenient. Teachers employ certain methods because they're dealing with 20 or more students. They need to act swiftly so their lessons aren't torpedoed by one youngster's misbehavior, causing the entire class to lose focus. They don't always time to offer a teachable moment, make the punishment fit the crime, or have a discussion like moms and dads can and should.

Spanking, time-outs, and digital grounding don't work. Verbal conflict resolution, connect and redirect, and logical consequences do.
Spanking, time-outs, and digital grounding don't work. Verbal conflict resolution, connect and redirect, and logical consequences do. | Source

With this in mind, I started thinking about various discipline methods that parents use with their children, wondering whether they're effective or not. What do pediatricians, psychologists, and early childhood educators say on the matter and are moms and dads following their advice? Here's what I discovered to help parents make better decisions about discipline:

To Spank or Not to Spank

I never spanked my boys when they were little nor did any of my friends do so with their kids. I was shocked, therefore, to read a study in Pediatrics in which 65 percent of parents with 3-year-old children admitted to spanking them within the month. Likewise, a Harris poll revealed that 81 percent of Americans said it's sometimes proper for parents to discipline their kids in this violent manner. I thought spanking had gone the way of the Walkman, drive-in movies, beehive hairdos, the Edsel, and the Watusi, but it's still alive and well and living in America — just carefully hidden.

Spanking, it turns out, is one of those dirty little secrets in our country. Parents know that pediatricians, psychologists, and early childhood educators oppose it but do it anyway, thinking it doesn't do any (or much) harm. Their thinking seems to be, “I was spanked as a kid and I turned out okay.” But what's lacking in their thought process is the enormous amount of research that's come out of late that shows spanking and other forms of corporal punishment pose grave risks to youngsters. Studies consistently show it can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, and even long-range mental health issues.

If that's not enough to discourage parents from using it, there's also the simple reality that it's ineffective. While spanking or the threat of spanking may work in the moment because it scares kids, the negative behavior will persist. Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Center says, “there is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work.”

If Not Spanking, Then What?

“The ugly American” is a title that people around the world sometimes use to describe those of us in the United States, thinking we're loudmouthed, ill-mannered, and ignorant of other nations and cultures. Our reputation of being uncouth certainly isn't helped by our propensity to spank our children. Thirty countries around the world have banned corporal punishment in all settings, including the home. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a statement in which they called it “legalized violence against children.” Yet, many moms and dads here stubbornly insist it's a parent's right to punish their youngster any way they see fit.

If so many people around the world aren't spanking their kids, what methods of discipline are they using instead? Sweden is a nation that not only banned corporal punishment but any sort of humiliating treatment of children. Parents there strive to build mutual respect between themselves and their kids. When a problem arises, they use “verbal conflict resolution” to express their feelings, listen to one another, and resolve the issue. Because of this, children in Sweden learn powerful communication tools at an early age, are more self-disciplined, and are better behaved at school.

When a child is angry, sad, or frustrated, they need connection and comfort. A time-out just makes them feel abandoned, afraid, and amps up their emotion.
When a child is angry, sad, or frustrated, they need connection and comfort. A time-out just makes them feel abandoned, afraid, and amps up their emotion. | Source

The Trouble With Time-Outs

A teacher may see time-outs as a necessary evil in a busy classroom. There are times when she must remove a disruptive child from the group so instruction can continue and the other kids can learn. She doesn't use time-outs as a punishment but as an opportunity for the child to calm down and regain his composure before returning to the lesson. She may even have a special time-out corner in the room where the youngster sits and does soothing activities such as coloring, playing with play-dough, and squeezing a stress ball.

Unlike a teacher dealing with a large group, parents don't need to use time-outs at home and probably shouldn't. Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson are authors of a life-changing book for moms and dads called No Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind. They're scholars in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, studying how relationships and the brain interact to shape our mental lives. According to them, time-outs are usually ineffective because they trigger an emotional reaction from the child that stems from her fear of abandonment. They write, “time-outs frequently make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they've done, and more focused on how mean their parents are to have punished them.”

Other experts in early childhood education agree as do many parents like me who've tried time-outs and found the results unsettling. When I gave my son his one and only time-out at age 3, it was a gut wrenching experience for both of us. When I put him in his room and closed the door, he wailed and wailed. He went to his closet and pulled all his clothes off the hangers. He then took crayons and scribbled on the walls. He had never acted like that before, but the time-out made him totally unhinged. Then and there, I vowed never to use it again. Experts say a reaction like my son's is not atypical. That's because time-outs make a youngster feel rejected, unloved, and frightened.

If Not Time-Outs, Then What?

Many parents see time-outs as the politically correct alternative to spanking, giving themselves a pat on the back for picking a non-violent form of discipline. Because they're commonly used and even recommended by some pediatricians, time-outs have become the method of choice for many moms and dads. But, in No Drama Discipline, the authors argue that time-outs are exactly what youngsters don't need when they're acting out, feeling emotionally vulnerable, and needing comfort. Instead of being put aside and made to feel alone and rejected, they need connection, love, and understanding.

It's important that moms and dads keep in mind that discipline is not synonymous with punishment. Discipline means to teach. The child is a student who needs guidance and wisdom, not a prisoner who needs to be put away in solitary confinement. Dr. Siegel and Dr. Payne Bryson recommend the “connect and redirect” approach, which I have used with tremendous success as both a mom and a teacher.

The parent connects with the child in the affective realm, recognizing and acknowledging what she's feeling. A mom might say to her daughter, "I see that you're very angry about losing Monopoly to your brother. It's frustrating, isn't it? When I was a kid, I was a bad sport when I'd lose a game to my brother." Once the daughter realizes Mom understands her, she feels less upset and starts to relax. The emotional connection has made all the difference in the world.

Now that her daughter is calmer, Mom can tap into the logical part of her brain, getting her to think about better ways to react when losing. She might say, "When you get mad like that, what could you do other than yelling?" Her daughter might come up with suggestions like taking a walk around the block, listening to music, writing in her journal, or going on a bike ride. She's learning to recognize and accept her powerful emotions and deal with them constructively.

Dr. Payne Bryson Says Time-Outs Often Escalate The Drama Rather Than Diffuse It

Taking Away Technology

When I was growing up in the 1970's, parents disciplined their children and teens by grounding them. When you misbehaved, you couldn't hang out with your friends or go fun places with your family but had to stay at home except for school and church. Today, moms and dads are more apt to use digital grounding, taking away or restricting the use of their kids' iPads, smartphones, and laptops. Eight of ten parents of youngsters 14 and under say limiting their child's use of technology is their preferred form of discipline. But how effective is it?

Digital grounding often makes the situation at home worse because parents fail to follow through, finding it too much of a hassle. Moms and dads buckle when their child whines, complains, or needs to be entertained because she's bored without her gadgets. When parents relent, they look weak and their child gets the upper hand.

Parents may also find it impossible to monitor digital grounding when their youngster is away from home. They may find it impractical to enforce because their child needs technology to complete her homework and stay in contact with friends about after school activities. Plus, many moms and dads want the convenience and comfort that comes from staying in contact with their youngster by smartphone. A digital grounding may cause more disruption in the family routine than it's worth.

If Not Digital Grounding, Then What?

If a boy hits his sister and gets disciplined with a week of no video games, he probably won't make a connection between those two unrelated experiences. Since the punishment doesn't fit the crime, it's largely meaningless to him, and he'll likely repeat the offense. That's why many experts in early childhood education recommend that parents take the time to choose logical consequences for a youngster's misbehavior. The brother who hit his sister, for example, should apologize and help her clean her room or play her favorite board game with her. These consequences teach him a valuable life lesson about repentance and making things right. They will make an impression on him, helping him make better choices in the future.

With young children, prompt consequences are most effective and more likely to make an impact. If parents catch a child riding her bicycle once again without a helmet, they should immediately tell her to put her bike in the garage and forbid her from riding it for the next two days. Longer punishments for young children are too punitive and unnecessary.

It's a good idea to make a child aware of consequences ahead of time so she's not taken by surprise. This builds trust between parents and kids, letting the child know that mom and dad want her to be successful. With teenagers, moms and dads may even want to make up a contract. They may write, for example, that the teen needs to maintain a C or better in all her classes. If there's a grade below a C on her next report card, she'll only be allowed to watch television on the weekends, not Monday through Friday. Spelling it out helps to clarify the issue and puts everybody on the same page.

Dr. Allen Discusses How Parents Can Use Logical Consequences for Both Good and Bad Behaviors

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 11 days ago from Bend, OR

      That's a good tradition to keep, Bill. I was surprised at the large percentage of parents who still spank their children. I thought we had moved way past that. Now, when I think back on former preschool and kindergarten students I had who were aggressive, I bet they were spanked. Of course, their parents would never admit to it!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 11 days ago from Olympia, WA

      My parents were old school, but they never spanked me. I never spanked my son. The tradition continues, hopefully. :)