Earlier this week, a video surfaced of an 8-year-old Kentucky boy who had been handcuffed behind his back at his elementary school.
The sheriff’s deputy who handcuffed the boy said he did so because the child was being unruly. The incident received public backlash and an online firestorm about the harsh disciplinary tactics.
But even far less severe punishments for defiant children have come under attack, namely in contemporary parenting literature that centers on “positive” parenting and “no drama” discipline.
However, experts with the American Psychological Association (APA) say research shows that some stiff parental discipline has its place.
Leading experts gave several presentations regarding the use of child punishment this week during the APA’s 123rd annual convention in Toronto.
It should be noted that punishment, in all of these cases, does not refer to abusive tactics, such as physically hurting a child.
Is Punishing Defiant Children Effective?
Robert Larzelere, Ph.D., a professor of parenting and methodology at Oklahoma State University, and his team interviewed 102 mothers who gave descriptions of how they handled their toddlers when they hit, whined, negotiated, were defiant, or weren’t listening.
Parents found that offering compromises to their children was the most effective way to immediately improve a child’s behavior, no matter what they were doing. Reasoning worked best for whining and negotiating children.
Punishments, however, were the least effective for negotiating and whining children, and reasoning with children who were hitting or defiant proved to be ineffective as well.
Those were all good and fine in the short term, but follow-up interviews with the mothers told a different story.
Mothers who employed compromises too often in children who acted out or were hitting found their children were acting worse over time.
However, using time-outs and punishments less than 16 percent of the time led to defiant children behaving better.
Reasoning with a difficult child may not have produced the best immediate results, but it was the most effective over time, researchers concluded.
Larzelere said while some parents may be hesitant to use punishment on their child, “scientifically supported parenting interventions for young defiant children have found that time-outs and other types of assertive tactics can work if they’re administered correctly.”
A Case for Timeouts
Timeouts are often viewed negatively because they’re not used properly, Ennio Cipani, Ph.D., a professor of school counseling and psychology at National University in Fresno, said in a separate presentation.
Cipani and colleagues observed the mistakes parents often make in using time-outs. One such way is using spur-of-the-moment decisions to put a child in time-out, instead of telling him or her which behaviors would warrant one.
In his paper, Punishment on Trial, Cipani tackled myths surrounding child punishment, including whether it works, how it affects a child’s emotional development, and whether punishment is not as effective as reinforcement.
Research into the use of time-outs and other punishments reveal they can be effective when used consistently for select behaviors and situations.
“Claiming punishment does not work is akin to claiming airplanes cannot fly. Sure there are times when planes unfortunately crash. No one jumps up and says, ‘Hey those people who founded the principles of aerodynamics are wrong. See what happened to this plane,’” Cipani wrote. “Anyone who claims that punishment does not work is either unaware of the numerous studies that have demonstrated the efficacy of punishment or chooses to ignore them.”
Parent and Child May Benefit from Therapy
Parenting is a tough job you can’t quit. And children don’t come with instruction manuals.
David Reitman, Ph.D., of Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, and Mark Roberts, Ph.D., of Idaho State University, say child behavior therapy may help both parents and children who are struggling.
Parents can learn useful techniques like the Hanf method of parenting. This style allows for an initial stage of positive discipline — like rewarding children for good behavior — and later uses more authoritative parenting techniques, such as time-outs.
“Therapists can help parents understand the problem, facilitate changes in the environment, and help the children acquire the skills they need to become successful,” Reitman said in a press release.
One learned tactic is giving the child a second chance to follow a parent’s instructions by offering a warning of potential punishments first. This technique has proven to be beneficial, Roberts says.
“The number of time-outs during initial therapy declines, while the necessity and effectiveness of time-out remains,” he said in a press release. “Over time, both parent instructions and warnings becoming increasingly effective, reducing the necessity of time-out for noncompliance.”