A mother spanks her little boy with a shoe in 1891. Parents have different ideas about punishment in 2011.
hulton archive/getty images
A mother spanks her little boy with a shoe in 1891. Parents have different ideas about punishment in 2011.

Story highlights

Parents may struggle with ways of teaching respect, values and appropriate behavior

Practice and consistency is essential to nonviolent correction

Reward system may work better than punishment

CNN —  

Noël Plummer can’t imagine making a conscious decision to inflict physical pain on her 8-year-old daughter as a punishment. She’s only slapped her daughter once, without thinking, when her then-5-year-old was having an enormous tantrum.

She’s never hit her again.

While she recognizes that physical punishment may encourage immediate fear-based compliance, “I’m interested in my child respecting my authority and decisions, and adopting my values about appropriate behavior,” says Plummer, an attorney living in Albany, California. “When I discipline my child, I am teaching her how to behave appropriately.”

That’s why Plummer uses a rewards system for positive behaviors and regular “time-ins” where she gives her daughter her undivided attention. She also decides what behavior she wants and gives her daughter advanced notice of what to expect – no surprises in her home.

“It’s getting late,” she’ll tell her daughter in the car. “When we get home, I want you to brush your teeth and get into your pajamas. If you’re done in 15 minutes, I will read to you. If not, I won’t be able to read to you tonight.”

Just like practicing a musical instrument or practicing the backstroke over and over in advance of a performance or competition, teaching our children to behave properly in a variety of situations takes preparation on our part and practice, practice, practice.

Here are some suggestions to get started.

Decide what you want.

Before your child throws a tantrum in the grocery store or breaks a treasured vase, choose the positive behavior you want to cultivate rather than the negative behavior you want to prevent or punish.

Unless you decide to teach that positive behavior – good manners at the grocery store or handling delicate things with care – your child will always return to the negative behavior, says Dr. Alan Kazdin, professor psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, director of the Yale Parenting Center and author of “The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child.”

Practice makes perfect.

Once you decide what behaviors you want to cultivate in younger children, play a game of make believe to train them how to behave positively.

It can take anywhere from one to three weeks of practicing the new behavior once a day as a game, but Kazdin says the new behavior will replace the old one. After you praise them effusively and specifically for the good behavior, hug or otherwise touch your child (a teenager may only accept a high-five or thumbs up).

“You have to practice it a little bit, just like the guy (Capt. Chesley Sullenberger) landing the plane in the Hudson,” says Kazdin. “Can you imagine someone saying to him, ‘There’s no need to practice in the simulator’? You have to get this behavior into your child’s body, and then it gets into his mind.”

Praise the good behavior.

Praise your children making good decisions and acting the way you want. Is your middle-school child actually telling you about a bad day? Say you appreciate her talking to you about her rough day before launching into suggesting a quick fix. Did your toddler put away his toys when asked? Praise him specifically for doing so. Does your kid like to get mail? Send a card telling them you appreciated that he’s learned to do his own laundry.

“We try to acknowledge and recognize when the boys do something right, no matter how trivial, rather than always focus on the negative and disciplining,” says Erik Botsford, a stay-at-home father of twin boys, age 3. “If the kids are sharing a toy, we always make a point to say ‘that’s great sharing.’ It’s regular positive reinforcement of cooperative or positive behavior.”

“Time in” is necessary.

The “time out” method popular with parents who don’t believe in corporal punishment won’t be effective in the long-term if there’s no “time in.”

“We believe in a lot of talking with our son, and especially a lot of listening to his point of view, and his reasons for doing things,” says Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, whose son is 12 years old. “So far that’s worked out very well for us. Parents need to keep in mind that the investments that they make in their children in terms of love, emotional warmth and time spent with their children have powerful positive effects on child behavior.”

Calm down.

Your child has broken your grandmother’s antique rocking chair, and you’re so angry you could spit fire.

Unless your child is in harm’s way, don’t parent while angry (at your child’s behavior or anything else).

Unless you want your child to learn to make quick decisions while furious, take a minute to calm down. Taking deep cleansing breaths might do the trick, or perhaps a quick relaxation exercise, says Dr. Robert Epstein, a research psychologist and author, former editor of Psychology Today and father of six children.

“Even just waiting a few minutes can help, because intense emotions usually subside on their own fairly quickly,” says Epstein, who developed the Epstein Parenting Competencies Inventory test of parenting skills, available at MyParentingSkills.com. “A parent should never let anger guide his or her parenting. A single slap, insult or shriek can be traumatic for a child and also cause serious damage to the relationship between parent and child.”

Know your kid.

Some children act out even more in response to time-outs. Others are happy for the alone time. Knowing what works for your child is key because it may be different than any parenting book’s recommendation. Some kids love time-out so would seek it out. Others hate it and would behave even more defiantly.

For Crissi Dillon of Petaluma, California, the most effective punishment she’s used for her 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son is to give them an extra chore when either of them misbehaves.

“Neither of them like cleaning but respond to this form of discipline better than having their things taken away,” says Dillon, moderator and blogger for SantaRosaMom.com, the parenting blog for the Press Democrat newspaper.

“It helps them to work out the anger they are feeling as they are working. And when they’ve finished the job, they’re done with their punishment. If the job is only half done, they have to do it again.”