Parenting “experts” these days are united in their opposition to physical punishment, which research repeatedly shows hinders kids’ moral, emotional and even intellectual development. (If you have questions about this, please see this article on spanking.)
But of course, that leaves the very real question of how parents can guide a two, three or four year old, who doesn’t have enough development in the prefrontal cortex yet for reason to trump emotion, and who may have no interest in following our rules!
Most experts advise parents to use Timeouts. On the surface, Timeouts seem sensible. They’re non-violent but still get the child’s attention. Plus, they give the parent and child a much-needed break from each other while emotions run high.
But any child can explain to you that timeouts ARE punishment, not any different than when you were made to stand in the corner as a child. And any time you punish a child, you make him feel worse about himself and you erode the parent-child relationship.
not surprisingly, research shows that timeouts don’t necessarily improve behavior. A study done by the National Institute of Mental Health[i] concluded that timeouts are effective in getting toddlers to cooperate, but only temporarily. The children misbehaved more than children who weren’t disciplined with timeouts, even when their mothers took the time to talk with them afterward. Michael Chapman and Carolyn Zahn-Wexler, the authors of the study, concluded that the children were reacting to the perceived “love withdrawal” by misbehaving more. That’s in keeping with the studies on love withdrawal as a punishment technique, which show that kids subjected to it tend to exhibit more misbehavior, worse emotional health, and less developed morality [ii]. These results aren’t surprising, given how much children need to feel connected to us to feel safe, and how likely they are to act out when they don’t feel safe. Alfie Kohn, in his book Unconditional Parenting, cites numerous studies on the negative effects of timeout and other love-withdrawal techniques on children’s moral and psychological development.
[i] Chapman, Michael and Zahn-Wexler, Carolyn. “Young Children’s Compliance and Noncompliance to Parental Discipline in a Natural Setting.” International Journal of Behavioral Development 5 (982): p. 90.
[ii] Hoffman, Martin. (1970) “Moral Development.” In Carmichael’s Manual of Child Psychology, 3rd ed., volume 2, edited by Paul H. Mussen. New York: Wiley.