Blog: What Is the Best Approach to Discipline?

Susan Stiffelman

My sisters and I have very different parenting styles. They both use time outs and punishments, and my approach is more what you teach here, Susan, where you try to see the child’s misbehavior as letting you know there is a problem that should be handled that the child may not be putting into words. Can you talk about the differences?

When choosing an approach to dealing with a child’s misbehavior, it is important to pay attention to what feels right to you. Here are some popular child-rearing approaches.

Authoritarian: When parents use punishments or force to control their children, they are relying on fear and intimidation to manage their behavior. While this approach works in some ways — anxious children are usually more obedient — it comes at a real cost. When children are raised in families where fear hovers in the background, they may be timid, lack confidence or have a harder time developing self-discipline or self control. Or they may simply take their naughty behavior underground. Parents adhering to this approach do not discuss upsets or give reasons for their rules. Many adults raised this way report that they use this style primarily because it was what their own parents did.

Behavior modification: This approach uses gold stars, happy faces, charts, stickers and rewards to motivate children to behave better. What I generally see with parents who use this system is that once the novelty of rewards and charts has worn off — usually within about two weeks — children lose interest in earning whatever prize has been dangled in front of them in exchange for behaving better. It is also hard for parents to consistently record positive and negative performance and keep track of prizes, making long-term success less likely. Still, there are some short-term scenarios where this approach is successful.

Timeouts: Children have a powerful drive for closeness and connection to their parents or primary caregivers and approaches that rely on threatening to send a misbehaving child away (Timeouts, 1-2-3-Magic) play off this need. Proponents believe that by suggesting that a child might have be sent away, the child will behave appropriately. I believe that methods that generate fear in children are unnecessary, simply because other methods work just as well without fostering the clinginess or insecurity that are often a side effect of Timeouts. Still, there are many who believe that this approach works very well.

Attachment Parenting: Attachment parenting advocates believe that building a loving connection with a child is fundamental to influencing their behavior. When a child misbehaves, they focus more on the underlying causes rather than putting Band-aids on the problem by emphasizing rewards or punishments. Parents are encouraged to help their child express his feelings, acknowledging their upset and helping the child use healthier solutions when they are unhappy or frustrated. Some of the models that fall within this category include Non-Violent Communication, Active Listening, Positive Parenting and my own Parenting Without Power Strugglesapproach.

You will have to decide what discipline style resonates with your beliefs, instincts and child’s temperament. Trust yourself, choosing what is right for you, rather than what others say is best — including your parents, siblings or parenting experts. Just make sure that when you do discipline your child, you are not angry. It is frightening for kids to be on the receiving end of a parent’s rage. Discipline is about helping children learn to behave with kindness, empathy, and civility and is best delivered by a calm and loving parent.