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Time Out or Spanking? How to Discipline a Child

M. D. Jackson has studied psychology since 1989. While her specialty is family relations, she also loves neuroscience and behaviorism.

Learn why and how to discipline children by following this guide.

Learn why and how to discipline children by following this guide.

Why Do We Discipline Children?

Why do we discipline children?

We discipline children for two reasons: 1) to control their behavior and 2) to teach them proper behavior. As a child grows, they learn to behave or not to behave through discipline.

Shaping a child into a self-disciplined adult is not an easy task. All children are different, creating an issue with how and when to discipline a child. Today we have more data than ever on the effects of disciplining children. Yet, current crime trends would imply that we still have not taught our children to behave properly. Let’s explore disciplining children.


Should I Punish My Kid?

Kids do things that make a mess. That is part of being a kid.

Often they do not realize the damage or mess they are making in the process of their brilliant ideas. These are not necessarily things a kid should be punished for. Instead, they should get to clean up themselves.

When a child is creative, they will draw and write on things they shouldn’t. It is better to teach appropriate creation rather than shut down your little artist. Being a parent comes with a certain amount of damage. That is where the statement “this is why we can’t have nice things” comes from. Your house probably will never be perfect while your kids are home. Learn the difference between a punishable offense and a teaching moment.

What Is "Time Out"?

The origin of the behavior modification technique we know as “time out” was created by a psychologist named Arthur Staats. Time out is what psychologists call a behavior modification technique. This widely used technique has replaced spanking in many areas of American culture. The general idea of time out is that a child is removed from a room/location where they were doing something deemed inappropriate (Staats, 1955). The child is then placed in isolation for a designated period of time.

An example of “time out” would be a child pushing another child at a birthday party. The parent then removes the child from the room where the party is happening for set amount of time with the understanding that appropriate behavior is required for the child to reenter the party. Once the child has completed the allotted period of time in isolation, the parent then discusses the appropriate behavior and releases the child. It sounds a lot like prison; I assure you it is just as ineffective as well.

In theory, a child who is correctly placed on time out should change his or her behavior. However, few people understood the premise behind “time out” enough to execute it effectively. Children left in time out too long or too often will get accustomed to being in time out, at which point the experience no longer holds any behavior-modifying properties.

Another issue with “time out” is that it cannot be used everywhere. If a child is being ignored by people and that child acts out, and subsequently is removed, then the child was not taken from a positive experience to a negative experience but rather the child was moved from one negative experience to another negative experience. Time out only works if it removes the child from an activity they want to do.

The overuse of time out has sparked controversy among psychologists. Many psychologists and doctors believe that spanking a child causes violent behavior in children, while others believe that not spanking a child teaches a child that there are no real consequences for their actions. Now there are even more psychologists who believe that even time out causes damage to kids by stifling their need to naturally express their emotions.

Saying "No"

Small children under the age of two do not have the thought process for a punishment to be effective. Under the age of two, children do not have the verbal communication skills needed for you to explain something in detail. It is for this reason that parents often overuse the word "no."

This is absolutely the wrong way to handle a child. "No" is the response to a question. It is not a command. It is interesting to note that most parents use a wider vocabulary with their dogs than they do with their children under two.

What to Say Instead of "No"

Effective instructions include "don't touch," sit down," and "please be quiet." Simply telling a child "no" does not convey a specific infraction and may not teach them not to do something. A "don't touch" combined with a swat on the hand means something to a child over two.

I would add the word "dangerous" to the vocabulary. As a child develops, vocabulary words are important reminders. The word "dangerous" can stop a kid in their tracks if they are taught properly, whereas "no" means too many things for a child to immediately respond.

Always Using the Same Punishment

Any punishment that is overused will cause the child to ignore the punishment; this includes spanking. Punishment should be situation specific. If a child ignores a chore to watch television, the obvious punishment is no television.

As parents, we cannot forget the purpose of a punishment is to discourage the behavior from happening again. If a child hits another child, does spanking discourage the child from hitting again, or does it reinforce the behavior? More than likely, hitting a child for hitting someone else is not a good punishment.

Constantly spanking a child tends to be a fallback punishment when the parent does not want to think about an appropriate punishment. I remember being spanked for everything growing up. At some point, the spanking quit meaning anything to me.

Strengthen Your Relationship

The best way to avoid having to punish a child is to have a good, trusting relationship with the child.

Parents who are impossible to please will diminish a child's natural desire to please them. In other words, if your child seems to do things constantly that are destructive and wrong, chances are you have not put in the time as a parent to teach that child good things and praise their efforts. Children should not feel bad all the time. This cycle can be broken by spending time with your child.


It is my firm belief that you will find two types of people in prisons today:

  1. People whose parents overindulged them to the point of the child not learning personal responsibility.
  2. People who were abused mentally, physically, sexually, or just plain neglected by their parents.

Most parents fall into the middle. We have moments where we neglect to notice important signals from our children, moments where we overindulge, and moments where we miss crucial teaching situations. Unlike the parents of the 1950s who worked from 9 to 5 and mom stayed home, parents of today deal with a tough 24-hour world demanding 24-hour attention.

Children are latchkey, raised by single parents, raised by grandparents, and sitting at the boys and girls club until close. Some of these parents are doing the best they can. Others are so focused on their own lives that they do not take the time to parent properly. Children act out when they feel neglected, emotionally hurt, and scared.

Young children are affected by hunger, illness, confinement, and being tired. We all remember road trips either as children or dealing with our own children. Long car rides do not give kids an outlet for their energy. By making a few stops at parks or playlands on a car trip can be a lot more enjoyable for children and adults.

Often child behavior is a precursor to illness. When a child has an earache or other mild pain, they will get cranky. If a parent misses the signals of illness, a child may be punished when they should be taken to the doctor. The first step is knowing your child and the child's normal behavior.

When Is It Appropriate to Spank?

When a child is openly defiant/disobedient. If you have told your child not to do something and they have ignored you, then swatting on the rear is appropriate. Why? Children have to learn consequences; you cannot raise a child to have consequences for disobedience without a quick and meaningful punishment.

When I was a kid, children never talked back to their parents. Disobedience garnished punishment akin to "releasing the Kraken" you knew that your parents were serious. You knew the behavior was not appropriate. It is through disobedience to their parents that many children have become repeat offenders in the corrections facilities as adults. Even in 1896, civics leaders knew that obedience in the home led to civil obedience. Without obedience in the home, children lack a duty to behave in social settings, leading to crime and prison time.

What Is the Problem With Spanking?

It's physical punishment. Some parents take it too far and hurt their children. When I was a kid, the belt, rulers, and a "switch" (tree branch) were popular for spanking kids. This is abuse. Spanking a kid's rear with your open hand shouldn't leave a mark on their rear. However, too many parents spank their child for everything the kid does wrong, leaving it ineffective.

Other parents spank their kids when they are angry, which is scary for the child and the parent. In one out of three missing children reports, the parent is the prime suspect. Don't spank your kids in anger. Take that deep breath, think about their behavior, and then decide how to proceed. Sometimes it is appropriate to swat a rear, other times, it isn't. Know when, and act accordingly.

Yelling and Threats

You've had all you can take; those kids are not listening, and you lose your cool, yelling at them as if the house was on fire. If you were a kid in the '70s and '80s, you know all about yelling as a form of punishment. It was scary at times yet never yields results.

Why? Because the second you start yelling, a kid stops listening to what you say and starts being scared of you. In times of danger, yelling is used to convey trouble. Instinctively children know this, and they react by shutting down. By the time a kid is in high school they not only will not listen to a parent that yells, but they also tune that parent out. Since yelling does not yield actual consequences, it doesn't improve long-term behavior. What's worse is that yelling can actually be the catalyst for a child behaving worse than they were.

Yelling Often Comes With Threats

There is no more useless form of attempted behavior modification than threats. Threatening a child only means something to that child if you have carried out the punishment before. You can't threaten to spank a kid who's never been spanked; eventually, they will just know you are lying. You can't threaten to take something away if you are not really going to take it away.

Do not threaten your child; just do it. Don't tell them you are going to take something away; just take it and wait for them to notice, then explain why it's gone. Make punishment REAL, not imaginary.

Quality Time

The argument over working mothers has raged on for years. Over and over, I have heard mothers say that they only see their children a couple of hours a day but it’s ok because it is “quality time.”

To this I say, quality time is being there when your child needs you. The idea that you can impact your child’s growth and development in a few short hours a day is ridiculous. Quality time tends to be the time when you are running around the house trying to get dinner, laundry, and other chores done. That is not quality time for your child. I will say that when I was a single parent important discussions took place while we folded laundry as a group and washed dishes together.

Obviously, I had to work, and so do many other mothers. For the most part, I took jobs that allowed me to be home with my kids as much as possible. I even took a $6000 pay cut to have a job where I could be home on the weekends.

Every person’s situation is different. I know somewhere right now there is a single mom scraping change to buy milk . . . and she is doing her best. That is all that can be asked of most parents. With a little knowledge and a lot of love, you can raise your child into a good adult.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2011 MD Jackson MSIOP


Anupam Mitu from MUMBAI on July 31, 2020:

I loved reading this hub from beginning till the end. You have explained it with so many examples and personal experiences that it looks like a well planned and researched article.

I'm also a single parent of two daughters and both of them behave like my mothers now.

In the beginning (when I was separated from my husband about 7 years ago), I was a kind of monster because of the depression of being dejected. I couldn't treat my little girls in a well defined manner. Gradually I realized what I was doing and transformed into a loving and compassionate mother.

The result is here.

I'm also pursuing psychology now to understand the children and people in a better way.

Thank you for this dear

MD Jackson MSIOP (author) from Western United States on August 11, 2011:

Thank you for your comments. I was not aware we can link hubs, you have given me a project for today! Thank you for the information!!!!

Man from Modesto from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California) on August 10, 2011:

Very well written. I think you can break this up into two hubs, each linking to the other at the end. After reading the first part, and liking it, you will get a follow-through view to the next hub.

You are correct about the uninformed application of time out. People use it expressly for control. Parents often punish their children in fear of how the child's behavior reflects on them personally. A parent without both discipline & patience, and knowledge & a plan, cannot effectively use negative feedback and association of negative consequence with poor behavior to raise up a disciplined and wise child.