Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Social psychology: Altruism · Attribution · Attitudes · Conformity · Discrimination · Groups · Interpersonal relations · Obedience · Prejudice · Norms · Perception · Index · Outline

There are many non-violent methods of child discipline available to parents. Effectiveness of non-violent method relative to spanking is still debated. Those opposed to spanking argue that non-violent methods of child discipline are not only more humane, but more effective, than physical punishment such as spanking. Since spanking has been shown in scientific studies [1] [2] [3] to lead to more misbehaviour in the long run, a commitment to non-violent discipline can be expected to soon make parents' lives easier than they would have been otherwise.

However, a 2006 study conducted in New Zealand [4] has shown that those who were physically punished mildly, including light open hand spanking on a clothed bottom or leg during their childhood, came out the same or slightly better than those who were never punished physically. The controversial N.Z study specifically criticised several previous studies which did not distinguish different degree of physical punishment and argue that such studies are biased from the outset to favour non physical method of child discipline.

The methods mentioned here are not just used by parents who object to spanking and other forms of corporal punishment: many parents use some of these methods at least some of the time. The use of any single form of discipline becomes less effective if it is used all the time, a process psychologists call habituation. Thus, no single one of the following is considered to be for exclusive use. Experts recommend that parents and caregivers use a variety of discipline methods.


One method often used for young children (most commonly ages 2-5) is the use of time-outs. A time-out involves isolating the child for a relatively short period of time, generally just a few minutes. Although the giving of time-outs is an extremely common parenting practice, it is also very widely misunderstood and misapplied. Most people think the purpose of time-outs is punishment. However, most child-rearing experts have never advocated using time-outs in this way. Ideally, the time-out is intended to give an over-excited child time to calm down. It is therefore most effective when a young child is throwing a temper tantrum or is otherwise misbehaving due to excitement. Many advocates of the time-out recommend that other methods of discipline are more appropriate when a child makes a calm, deliberate choice to misbehave.

The theory behind the time-out is that children at these ages are often frightened by their own lack of control when they throw tantrums. If the child is given a chance to regain self-control on their own in a quiet place free of distractions, they will often be relieved to do so. Thus, time-outs help children develop internal self-control, whereas with more punitive methods like spanking, the child relies on someone else to forcibly control them. This is one reason why even parents who consider spanking acceptable often use time-outs instead for situations like a young child's temper tantrums.


Distraction is a method of stopping young children from continuing a problem behavior. For example, if the parent sees the young child involved in an unacceptable behavior, the parent suggests to the child a more interesting alternative, such as reading a book together, a dance around the room, sitting together in the rocker, singing songs, etc. This is followed by continuing to play with the child until her unacceptable behavior is forgotten, then take her from the area for other activities, in order to assure that they will not return to it.

The distraction method relies on the fact that young children have very short attention spans. Thus, it becomes less useful as the child matures. Advocates of this method often argue that as long as a child is young enough to be reliably distracted from misbehavior, they are also too young to have the necessary attention span or capacity for self-control to make deliberate long-term changes in their behavior. Thus, they argue, punishing a child at this age would be pointless and serve only to create unnecessary resentment.

Distraction can involve hugging. Hugging is useful for children not yet capable of reasoning or those in, for example, the so-called "terrible twos." This is used mainly when the child is involved in persistent negative behavior or in destructive behavior. The child is picked up and hugged in such a way that the child does not get hurt but ceases their ill-behavior. As the child begins to quiet, they are rocked, sang to, or spoken to in soft, calming tones. They are then removed from the room and given an activity that distracts them from his previous concern.


Children will come to the ageTemplate:When when reasoning is a very effective discipline tool. At this time, the child may be told, for example, "If you play with the glass apple, your hands are small, and it could fall. It would break and cut you, and we'll have to throw it away." These times are often followed by such activities as sitting on the floor, placing the apple on the carpet, and letting the child caress it for a short time, then putting it away. This not only satisfies the child's natural, healthy curiosity and opens up the possibility for communication, but it also gives the child one-on-one time with the parent. In addition, it also helps the child learn how to decide on their own what actions should be avoided. All other forms of discipline are significantly more effective when paired with a calm, clear, reasoned discussion about why the behavior was wrong.


Often, when a child misbehaves, there are natural consequences. Advocates of the "consequential" approach state that these consequences should be their discipline, and that in this way the lesson will be remembered far longer than will punishment. Many thus believe that, within reason, children should be allowed to learn from their own mistakes. For instance, if a child wants to eat all their Halloween candy in one sitting despite being warned of the consequences, these parents would allow them to do so - assuming that the resulting indigestion will be the best possible way to teach them to avoid such gluttony. Experts generally suggest that this approach is not effective for very young children, who do not yet have a firm understanding of cause and effect, especially if the consequence does not become apparent until some time after the behavior. However, it becomes an increasingly appropriate method as the child grows.

Similarly, many parents and experts believe that logical consequences for misbehavior are also effective. For example, if a teenager uses the car without permission, a logical consequence would be that the car is off-limits for a period of time which includes an instance when the teen is greatly inconvenienced.


Advocates of non-violent discipline state that modeling is an extremely effective disciplinary tool, but it also places the greatest demands upon the parent. The parent must consistently show the child what kind of life is expected of him by not doing anything that the parent will not allow the child to do. Showing the child appropriate behavior will teach the child far faster and far more deeply than will disciplinary action for misbehavior. Modeling is worthy of the efforts of every parent and shows the child by example that the parent is willing to "walk the walk" as well as "talk the talk."

At the same time, it is understood that obsession with portraying parental perfection to the child can be very detrimental to the child. When the parent errs, rather than covering up the error, advocates strongly suggest admitting the error, talking about it, and openly living through its consequences. The combination of a dedicated, sincere, consistent effort on the part of the parent to model appropriate behavior with the ability to admit errors and apologize creates reciprocal respect for the parent and prevents resentment based on hypocrisy and double standards, say modeling proponents.

Praise and rewards

Praise and rewards (hugs, time with the child, etc.) for good behavior similarly goes much further as discipline than does punishment (see positive reinforcement). Simply giving the child positive attention and respect when they are not misbehaving will also act as an extremely strong reinforcer for good behavior. It is very common for children who are otherwise ignored by their parents to turn to misbehavior as a way of seeking attention.

Advocates of this method differ on the question of what exactly should be used as rewards. Some, for instance, are strongly opposed to the use of food or sweets as rewards; others find candy a very effective and appropriate incentive.

Behavioral psychologists generally suggest that rewards may be more effective at producing long-term behavioral changes, although punishment may be more effective short-term. Punishment has a number of drawbacks. First, while it is often highly effective in the short term, it is less useful in the long term; often it will simply teach a child to not get caught performing the undesirable behavior. It also tends to create anger; not only will a child who has been punished too often become angry at the parent (and thus less motivated to please the parent), they may also take out their anger on others, such as younger siblings. Finally, precisely because punishment is so effective in the short term, it can be dangerously seductive for parents. Because the act of punishing is so often rewarded (by having the child cease an undesirable behavior), parents come to associate the act of punishing with pleasurable feelings of relief and satisfaction, and thus may become tempted to punish more and more often, even when it is not appropriate - something that obviously can have damaging effects on the child. Thus, most experts agree that while punishment is an indispensable tool for stopping undesirable behaviors, it is better to rely on rewards for good behavior whenever possible.

There is also some controversial research in behavioral psychology that suggests that extrinsic rewards - rewards that are external to the behavior - can undermine intrinsic rewards - rewards that come from the mere act of performing the behavior itself. A child who enjoys reading, therefore, finds reading an intrinsically rewarding act. According to this theory, if the child was given money for every book they read (an extrinsic reward), their enjoyment of reading would decrease. However, this phenomenon is much less simple than many people realize; many studies on the subject have produced contradictory results. According to the most recent research, extrinsic reinforcement undermines intrinsic reinforcement only if the extrinsic reward is tangible, is expected, and is not tied to quality of performance. Thus, rewarding a child with praise and positive attention will not decrease any intrinsic enjoyment they receive from good behavior, but more care should be taken with tangible rewards such as money, toys or sweets.


Just as verbal praise is a powerful reinforcer for most children, verbal scolding can be an effective punishment. As with other punitive methods, however, over-reliance on scolding will drastically lessen its effectiveness. However, if reproving—that is, gentle scolding— is sometimes used in place of yelling, then the child (or children) won't be afraid.


  1. Straus, MA., DB. Sugarman and J. Giles-Sims, Spanking by Parents and Subsequent Antisocial Behaviour by Children. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 1997; 151:761-767
  2. Brezina, T. Teenage violence toward parents as an adaptation to family strain: evidence from a national survey of male adolescents. Youth & Society 1999; 30:416-444
  3. Simons, RL., KH. Lin and LC. Gordon, Socialization in the family of origin and male dating violence: a protective study. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1998; 60:467-78.
  4. Parental spanking, New Zealand, Oct 2006 - CORPUN ARCHIVE nzd00610

See also

  • Non-violence
  • Taking Children Seriously, a child-rearing philosophy which considers even non-violent modification of the child's behaviour as unethical and harmful.
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).