On Psychology

Jewish World Review July 29, 1998 / 6 Menachem-Av, 5758

Dr. Wade Horn

Do bad 'authority-figures' make good parents?

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

ONE OF THE GREAT DEBATES in modern psychology is whether or not punishment is good for children.

The predominant opinion seems to be that it is best to minimize the use of punishment, if it is to be used at all, in favor of disciplinary reasoning. Others believe that reasoning alone is ineffective, especially with younger children, and a brief "time out" (something our grandmothers used to call "sitting in the corner") or even, heaven forbid, a spanking can work wonders in terms of ensuring children learn to comply with the directions and commands of legitimate authority figures (read: parents).

This debate can be boiled down to this: does "sparing the rod, spoil the child" or does punishment simply teach children that "might makes right." Few issues engender as much heated debate within the world of parenting experts than this. So what's a mother (or father) to do?

That's precisely the question that Robert E. Larzelere and his colleagues at Boys Town set out to answer. The results of their study were reported in the a recent issue of the highly respected Journal of Marriage and the Family. Their answer may surprise more than a few modern parenting experts.

Dr. Larzelere and his colleagues first trained mothers of 2- and 3-year-olds to record in a daily diary each occurrence of their preschooler's fighting or disobedience and each disciplinary technique, selected from a list of 21 techniques, that they used in response to each occurrence of misbehavior.

For purposes of this study, fighting was defined as "physical fighting with siblings or other children" and disobedience was defined as "disobedience to spoken parental commands." Punishment included such things as time-out, withdrawal of privileges, hand slapping, and spanking, whereas reasoning included description of consequences, explanations, and seeking information from the toddler.

Whether or not punishment or reasoning or both was used in response to a misbehavior determined four categories of disciplinary responses: reasoning only, punishment only, reasoning-punishment combination, and other (defined as commanding to stop, rewarding the child, threatening the child or diverting the child's attention).

In addition to these daily disciplinary diaries, the researchers also had the moms complete a toddler behavior checklist and a measure of overall maternal nurturance. The moms and their preschoolers were then followed for nearly two years. Here are the results.

Moms who relied on reasoning as their preferred disciplinary tool had the most disruptive and disobedient children. The moms with the least disruptive and disobedient children were the ones who were willing to back up their attempts at reasoning with punishment. Particularly impressive was the fact that the use of reasoning plus backup punishments at the beginning of the study was highly predictive of more well-behaved children nearly two years later. Moms who relied on reasoning alone had children who nearly two years later fought the most with other children and were the most disobedient.

These results held even after controlling for original level of disruptive behaviors.

As the researchers point out, it may be true that optimally parents should use reasoning more than punishment. But what this study suggests is that using punishment, especially in the preschool years, as a back-up for reasoning may be crucial for achieving that goal. By pairing reasoning with punishment, reasoning becomes a signal that continued disobedience will result in punishment. The parent is essentially saying, "I will reason with you first, but if you continue misbehaving, I am prepared to punish you."

Since reasoning is the preferred disciplinary technique in the long run, parents who are prepared to back up the use of reasoning with punishment when their children are preschoolers can use reasoning more effectively when their preschooler is older.

On the other hand, parents who over-rely on reasoning during the preschool years tend to develop into "natterers" -- they nag their children or scold them irritably but rarely follow through with punishment. Their message to their misbehaving child is, "I will reason with you first, and if you continue misbehaving, I will reason with you some more." There is a substantial body of research to indicate that "nattering" is a common, but very ineffective, disciplinary tool. Indeed, the most misbehaved children tend to have "natterers" as parents.

Now, before you start sending me letters and e-mails accusing me of recommending child abuse, I hasten to add that punishment is not the equivalent of three days on the rack.

Although for punishment to be effective it must produce some discomfort in the child, punishment does not necessarily mean spanking. Indeed, both as a parent and as a clinical child psychologist, I recommend time-out and logical consequences as first line methods of punishment.

Spanking itself should be used very rarely, never when the parent is angry, and should never cause bruising or bleeding. Nor should it be used with children older than about 7 years of age. In fact, if a parent has used time-out effectively during the preschool years, spanking is almost never needed after a child turns 5 years old. So Dr. Horn is not -- I repeat, not -- advocating child abuse.

What I am suggesting, and this study substantiates, is this: in response to disruptive and disobedient behavior, parents of preschoolers should first employ the least aversive disciplinary tool, that is reasoning. However, if reasoning alone does not work, parents should be ready, willing and able to back up their reasoning with a slightly more aversive tactic, such as "time out." Only if the child continues to be disruptive or disobedient (or refuses to stay in the time-out chair) should a parent use non-abusive corporal punishment, such as a one- or two-swat spanking.

So there you have it. Not only are you not a mean, rotten, nasty monster if you occasionally back up reasoning with punishment (even a spanking or two), by doing so you may actually be laying the groundwork for more effective use of reasoning when your preschool is older. Of course, when your kid becomes a teenager, nothing will seem to work -- but that's fodder for another column.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn