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Expert advice on no-spank discipline that really works

Two kids are wrestling over the toy clown their aunt made, voices rising as each demands the right to sleep with it.
Stephanie Mihalas, a licensed child and family psychologist in Los Angeles, believes some parents would swat the toddlers on the backside and send them to bed.

She prefers putting the toy in time out until things settle down.

"Remove the toy for 15 minutes. Make a simple statement as you do it," said Mihalas, a clinical instructor at UCLA. "'You were fighting over the toy. I removed the toy. The toy will come back when you calm down.’ ”

Psychologist Douglas F. Goldsmith, executive director of the Children’s Center in Salt Lake City, explains to a couple why taking away a teenager’s iPad, along with a cascade of privileges, probably won't spark the behavioral change they want. Talking to the youth — and really listening — is more apt to yield results.

Arguments, disobedience, back-talking, laziness and not sharing are just a few things kids do that test parental patience. The question for parents is what to do when vexed — a longstanding discussion that got jumpstarted last month after Minnesota Vikings professional football player Adrian Peterson was charged with child abuse for spanking his son with a switch. He says he was disciplined that way as a child.

Discipline is tricky terrain, but experts say there are effective nonphysical ways to promote wanted behaviors. Using techniques that teach proper behavior while treating both parent and child with respect frees parents from worry about how physical is too physical when it comes to discipline.

"It's far more effective and less risky to use nonphysical discipline," said Janet Lansbury, a Los Angeles parent educator. "Discipline means 'to teach,' not 'punishment.’ ”

Hear yourself

Goldsmith has a simple starting point for dealing with children, whether he's happy with them or not: “How do we as adults expect to be treated? If we listen to our own behavior, we realize that even at the dinner table we tend to bark at kids: ‘Pass the rolls. I said, “Pass the rolls.” Did you listen?’ We would not have that conversation with a spouse or partner. And if (adults) didn’t comply fast enough, we’d assume they needed more time or didn’t hear us. We don’t give kids that benefit. We want them to do what we said, right now.”

Listening is gold when it comes to crafting discipline, he said. Ask a child what’s making her mad, and you may get a really good explanation. Then listen to yourself.

“If you were to track every time you said your child’s name and write down what you said next, it’s a flurry of wash your hands, go brush your teeth, it’s time to go do this chore, you should be in bed," Goldsmith said. "We’re making constant demands, and it should not surprise us that the children really work to tune us out, because as soon as we say, ‘Charlie,’ what’s coming next is not something he wants. Parents need to be more balanced about it. Say his name and tell him what a great kid he’s being.”

Parents who are “grounded in calm, simple strategies” can effectively change behavior, Mihalas said, but too often they turn discipline into a drawn-out ordeal.

Children learn when they are comfortable and feel safe and connected to their leaders — parents or teachers, Lansbury said. That creates a connection where a child wants to please. How parents choose to correct behaviors may undermine that connection.

Parents who are irrational or erratic in discipline or who become overly emotional or angry get in their own way when it comes to teaching children, according to Goldsmith and Mihalas.

Couples should discuss discipline before they marry if they intend to have children, Mihalas said. Those who hold different ideas about how to punish kids will likely fight about it in front of them instead of being united. "I've seen marriages go completely downhill just on the topic of spanking," she said.

Age appropriate

As in the example of the clown-loving wranglers, when young kids fight over an object, the easiest path to peace may be to take it away until everyone’s calmer, Mihalas said.

On the other hand, taking things away as a punishment with older kids has a different effect, Goldsmith said. Too often, parents aren’t sure what to do, especially with an older child they view as defiant. So they take something away, then something else and something else as their own frustration mounts.

That’s more about a parent’s frustration than about teaching children appropriate behavior, which is the goal of discipline, Goldsmith said. And it doesn’t work, either.

Kids tend to dig in, further maddening their folks. “’Well, my bike tire was flat anyway; I don’t care.’ ‘I was done playing Minecraft anyway,’ ” he cited as examples of how children can react to escalate the situation.

At any age, requests should be clear, but a parent who wants a child to do something should not keep asking. Twice is the limit, Goldsmith said. A child who hasn’t complied then is not going to and action is needed.

He recommends putting a child as young as 3 in a chair “until you’re ready to listen to mommy,” and rewarding children for listening with a treat, more time playing a favorite game or a pizza night. “If it’s something important to the child, working toward that goal suddenly turns compliance into something that’s fun and productive, and it really only takes about three or four weeks and we see a huge change in the defiant behavior,” he said.

Eye on the prize 

Addressing behavior problems from an early stage removes much of the stress as kids get older — for everyone.

Lansbury said parents must recognize that bad behavior is neither totally unconscious nor really deliberate. So they must keep their eye on the goal of parenting: to raise successful, happy children and have a wonderful, lasting relationship with them.

Parents also must remember that children are not tiny adults. They have developmental realities that impact and even skew behaviors. How they express strong emotions like fear and grief may seem unreasonable — and certainly inconvenient — to adults. Children need help staying safe as they express emotions they don’t understand and impulse is often stronger than their ability to control it, Lansbury said. That's often a complaint with older kids, too.

If a child slaps — all little kids do at least once — don't overreact or slap back, she said. "Stop the behavior matter-of-factly, in a non-threatening way. 'I'm not going to let you do that.' They are testing, and we are going to stop it, but we're not worried about it," she said.

When talking to kids, Lansbury said to use periods, not question marks. “ ‘You have to get in the car seat now.' Not, 'You have to get in the car seat now, OK?' And remember that modeling is the teacher that trumps everything. If you want your kids to be gentle, are you? Forgiving? Are you?”

Tell me why

Parents sometimes mishandle praise, but getting it right is an important part of teaching children how to behave, Goldsmith said. Praising effort, action and character are all part of discipline. "There's great research that saying 'you are really smart' doesn't help them," he said. "But 'I love the effort you put into your homework' does help."

Best-practice discipline includes helping children learn from mistakes. By around fourth grade, kids can be told to write down what happened, what they were thinking, what they could change to prevent repeating an unacceptable behavior, he said. It’s a chance to think through problematic choices and do better.

Mihalas uses a "mindful jar" where children place tokens. "When they do that," she said, "they say what they did wrong. It sets children thinking about what they could have done better. They put it away, getting rid of what they did, and start over."

Kim Roman adopted two special-needs children, now 8, who both have behavioral issues. They can earn virtual bucks by making their beds, doing other chores and following house rules. They can also lose a virtual buck, Roman, of New York City, said.

"These bucks add up to a small prize when they reach their goal. … For our family, this works much better than anything else we have tried," Roman said. "Our children feel like they have accomplished something and are proud of themselves when they earn their small prize."

Kids of all ages can go into a "cool-down chair." It's not a time out, but a place to draw or write about what happened or simply reflect. There’s no harangue. When calm is restored, what happened can be discussed, Mihalas said.

"It alters communication within the family. Rather than embarrassment — which happens after spanking and anger — it leads to conversation," said Mihalas, who believes children held to a mistake-free standard just learn to hide errors. That amps up anxiety and makes it impossible to correct anything.

Parents should be firm but not upset, because when parents lose their cool, the situation spirals, Mihalas said.

Kids with behavior issues are raising flags. If an older child picks on the baby, it probably means the child is worried about losing his place in the family. Punishing him doesn’t relieve that. Lansbury said to create a safe environment for the baby and let the older child know you won’t allow that behavior. But in a calm moment, convey that you understand his distress. “ 'Sometimes older kids feel scared when they have a little brother or sister,' " she said. " 'If that happens to you, let me know.' ”

Flexibility and discussion are two valuable tools for dealing with teens. If a teenager wants to change plans, for example, let her make a case. Lansbury said, “It's important that parents not hold the line strictly; that encourages a child to act out and go behind one's back anyway," she said. "Be flexible within your boundary."

As for penalties, she likes using social justice. Instead of taking your teen’s phone or grounding her, have her help out at a shelter. “It makes punishment be about meaning, rather than about parent anger," she said.

Providing choices can ease tension. Goldsmith recommends listing what needs to be done after school and then creating a timeline within which the child can choose when things happen. “ 'Yes, you can do your homework after dinner.' Only now, it's kind of a contract," he said.

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