A Word About Healthy Discipline
By Michael J. Marshall, Ph.D.
Chapter 6, Why Spanking Doesn't Work: Stopping this Bad Habit and Getting the Upper Hand on Effective Discipline, Bonneville Books, an imprint of Cedar Fort, Inc., Springville, UT, June 2002

Visit Dr. Marshall's Web site at StopSpanking.com

A key component of most parents’ discipline strategy is punishment. And punishment has traditionally meant spanking. Today many informed parents are making the transition to noncorporal forms of punishment, such as time out. This is a step in the right direction towards better childhood discipline practices. Parents who use time-out will never have to suffer through the agony of taking their child to the emergency room due to an accidental injury resulting from corporal punishment gone awry. However, time-out is still a form of punishment. It is subtractive (the removal of a pleasant stimulus) instead of additive (the introduction of a painful stimulus). Unfortunately, the other 12 negative side effects of spanking can still occur when noncorporal punishment is used. They are just not as severe. Skinner (1976) recognized the undesirable side effects of punishment and advocated a society that was reinforcement-oriented in his book Walden II. His vision of a utopian society has been implemented in a commune called Twin Oaks, located in Louisa, Virginia, which is still active today.

Skinner did not “approve” of the use of punishment, not out of ethical considerations, but on a pragmatic basis--he knew it doesn’t work well. Skinner discovered that punishment only temporarily acts to interfere with whatever stimulus is reinforcing the undesired behavior. Until the positive reinforcer that sustains the behavior is removed the “bad” behavior will keep returning, in spite of the punishment. For instance, punishing Junior for teasing his sister will only temporarily eliminate the teasing in the presence of the punisher because the teasing is still being reinforced in multiple ways. It creates some “action” for Junior to relieve his boredom, gives him a sense of control over his sister, and gets lots of attention from Mom and Dad. The cost of the punishment pales when pitted against the existence of these powerful reinforcers. The real solution to the problem lies not in “attacking” the problem behavior with punishment, but in recognizing and managing the reinforcers.

This presents a conundrum to parents. If punishment doesn’t work, then how is it possible to discipline a child? Jordan Riak (2002), Director of Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE), offers a solution in the form of a paradigm shift. Some of his ideas are reflected in this chapter. He believes that the focus of discipline is more aptly directed at the parent instead of the child. It’s not something you do to the child, it’s a way of showing the child how to be. Discipline starts with the adult's perception of the child's true needs. But a misunderstanding of those needs can leave the door open to counterproductive responses by the parent. In reality, most parents simply react to the child in a manner consistent with what they witnessed and experienced at the hands of their parents while growing up. And now, as adults in charge of their own children, they mindlessly discipline as they were disciplined. Unless parents make a conscious effort to change this automatic intergenerational discipline pattern, it will be passed on to their children.

Too often discipline consists of getting angry and punishing the child with a spanking, yelling, or grounding. In other words, to punish means to vent anger at the child. Anger is the primary motivator. But with this approach, one is already headed down the wrong path.

Some spanking advocates advise that one should never spank when angry. This is a tacit acknowledgment that spanking often is a result of parents’ anger--that it is easy to overreact, hit too hard, and injure a child. The fatal flaw in this advice is that research clearly indicates punishment has no impact on behavior if it is not administered immediately (Camp, Raymond, & Church, 1967). Therefore, if an angry parent waits until he has cooled off before punishing, the whole purpose of punishment has been defeated. There are other spanking advocates who apparently are willing to ignore the obvious physical dangers associated with overreaction. They advise parents to respond without delay to a child's misbehavior. Upon examination of both options: a) to punish spontaneously, with all its risks and meager temporary benefits or b) to wait until one has cooled down before punishing and accrue even fewer benefits, it should become obvious that neither choice is a good one. It makes far better sense for parents to learn and employ non-spanking methods. They have been proven to work, and are without the high risk of negative side effects.

Riak says that discipline must begin with the parent. Parents must first learn to manage their own emotions in a disciplined manner by thinking, “How do I stand back and rationally assess the problem, think of possible solutions, and move to the next step without succumbing to the natural impulse to strike out in anger. Discipline begins with me. I need to act with self-control.” Attempting to guide a child without learning alternatives to those reactions copied blindly from one's own childhood, is destined to fail.

Raising a child is the most difficult and demanding task any of us will ever undertake. To do so without self-discipline, self-understanding, and knowledge of child development, but by merely relying on old habits and impulses, is like jumping out of an airplane and saying “I’ll figure out how to work the parachute on my way down.” At that point it’s too late to do it correctly. Granted, behavior is complex and today’s families are under enormous stress. No one can be expected to parent correctly all of the time. And a simple, all-purpose, fool-proof recipe book on how to be a perfect parent hasn't been written, and probably will never be written. What is most important is to set a family tone of love, caring, and mutual respect. A positive tone sets the stage for easier and more successful family interactions. If parents make an occasional slip, reverting to their old impulse-driven habits, it's not the end of the world. A positive family climate works as a powerful antidote to the occasional mistake.

Parents foolishly will punish a child at a restaurant dinner table for an infraction like throwing crayons all over the table and pouting instead of picking them up. They may say something like, “You naughty girl! Do you want a spanking? There's no dessert for you, young lady, if you're going to behave like this.” The situation is instantly turned into a very bad experience filled with negative messages, bad feelings, and is almost certainly headed for a crash landing. It is all so unnecessary! If, instead, the parent starts from a position of self-discipline, she may realize that her five-year-old is tired, stressed, and at the end of her rope after a long, hard day. She cannot handle the frustration of sitting still and obeying all the expected social rules. The wise parent recognizes the source of the child's apparent misbehavior. Perhaps the mother is embarrassed by having others see her child's breach of good conduct, but she should put such considerations aside. After all, this is not a scene from a Shirley Temple movie. This is real life. The mother must keep focused on the true needs of her child, not the impression she is making on strangers. She might handle the situation this way: “Sierra, the pizza is coming soon. But where will the waitress put it if the crayons are all over the table? Here, I’ll pick up this one and you can help me get the others. Here's the green one. Can you get the yellow one? Thank you. Now, where's the blue one? Sierra! You know all the colors. Did you learn that at school?” The mother skillfully redirects the child onto safe territory. Now Sierra is engaged in an activity she understands, has control of, and, as a bonus, has proudly displayed her mastery of colors.

Five-year-olds are naturally industrious. Tapping into this strength is a smart move. It’s better for Sierra to feel good about helping mom and getting a word of praise about her accomplishments, than to have her frustrations compounded by a disapproving, threatening and angry parent. Can’t you just see a five-year-old smiling and beaming with pride in this scenario? She’s really learned a lot of positive lessons about proper behavior, patience, self-control, respect for the dignity of others, creative solutions, and family bonding. This is what healthy discipline is all about!

Remember, positive reinforcement is the most powerful kid motivator in the world. In other words, everyone can learn to manage children’s behavior without hitting, yelling, being angry, and asserting power. It is not necessary to conclude, “If I am not allowed to hit my kid, then I don’t know what to do. I won’t be able to discipline him at all anymore.” This attitude is child abuse in disguise. The child’s discipline is being neglected due to the lack of effort put forth by the parent to sort out what is happening and teach proper behavior. It takes more time and effort to discipline creatively than to react punitively, but take the time. It's worth it.

Without the motivation to learn and improve, the pattern of impulse-hitting will be transmitted to the next generation. Riak points out that the burden of discipline should not be borne by the child, but by the parent. How well the parent keeps at bay habitual punitive impulses, and supplants them with thoughtful management, makes all the difference.

Some parents attempt to justify punitive control of children with such argument as: "If I don't threaten or punish Johnny, he won't listen. But a swift swat on the bottom or the threat of a grounding gets his attention fast." What those parents fail to understand is that children learn to listen the same way they learn everything else--by imitation. The parent who wants a child to listen, must first model that behavior. The best way a parent can show the child how to be a listener is by listening to the child. While talking to children is a thousandfold better than hitting them, learning to balance talking with listening takes the process of good parenting one vital step further. The child who is listened to is the child who learns to listen. In child rearing, as in all other human relationships, one usually gets what one gives.

Consider this analogy: The prohibition of wife-beating created a social revolution. A wife was no longer considered a husband’s property to do with as he pleased. He was no longer allowed to control her by imposing his will through intimidation and physical punishment. However, the new laws did not immediately change men’s attitudes. They addressed behavior. Husbands had to refrain from hitting their wives out of fear of becoming social pariahs or having to defend their behavior in a courtroom. The law set in motion a gradual shift in cultural norms that required generations to change the old thought patterns and ways.

Today, boys who rarely or never witness their mother being abused by their father, are highly unlikely to become abusive husbands. Girls who rarely or never see their mothers mistreated by their dads, are highly unlikely to become victimized wives. We no longer accept a husband's right to "lovingly chastise an errant wife." The concept of wife-as-property and husband-as-master, which was once central to family dynamics, has lost its legitimacy. With the advantage of hindsight, we see the terrible price paid by past generations that were trapped in such a belief system. No reasonable person wants to return to the old way. Now we are on the cusp of the next social revolution. It is only a matter of time before the antiquated norms that permit violence to be committed on children in the name of discipline follow suit and join wife beating in the dust bin of atavistic values.

Camp, D. S., Raymond, G. A., & Church, R. M. (1967). "Temporal relationship between response and punishment." Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74, 114-123.

Riak, J. (2002). Personal communication.

Skinner, B.F. (1976). Walden Two. Englwood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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