Beyond time-outs: No-yell, no-spank discipline

I got this email from a colleague: “My son laughs in my face when I put him in time out.  If you don’t Time-outspank, and you don’t yell, what do you do?”

I’ve been there and had the exact same thought.  For a long time I looked for a simple, formulaic answer to this problem.  If child does X behavior, then punishment should be Y.  But it’s just not that easy.

A few years ago I watched a family with six children under 12 leave a school event.  The kids each packed their own backpacks and, on their mother’s first request, filed into their van and buckled themselves into their own car seats.  No whining, no debating, no yelling.  How does she do it?  I asked her.  And then I asked lots more moms.  I spent two years interviewing parents of happy, obedient children.  Whenever I found kids waiting nicely in a doctor’s office or obeying their mother in the grocery store, I asked them what they did for discipline.  Here’s what they said:

  • Spanking and yelling don’t work.  They might provide immediate behavior change, which his convenient for parents, but ultimately harsh parenting techniques breed anger and fear in your home.  Yet 94% of parents still use corporal punishment.Rather than corporal punishment, children need attuned parenting for healthy brain development.  Dr. Joan Luby is a professor of child psychiatry and director of the Early Emotional Development Program at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.  Her research shows that positive parenting of toddlers in stressful situations, rather than scolding or corporal punishment, is actually associated with an increase in the size of certain areas of the brain.

    Parents who don’t spank usually yell at their kids instead.  But yelling can hurt kids more than spanking.  Yelling is a late defense mechanism, a technique we use when everything else fails.  If you find yourself yelling at your kids too much, you need other options for discipline.  Keep reading.

  • Be attuned to your children.  I’ve come to realize that the key to raising emotionally healthy children is attunement—or how well you recognize your child’s needs at any given moment.  Attunement, in short, is putting yourself in your child’s shoes and then meeting their needs with the wisdom of a parent.Most books on discipline and parenting revolve around the same themes—be consistent, follow-through with consequences, don’t give too many warnings, don’t punish in anger, etc.  Although I agree with these themes, there is a risk of becoming too formulaic.  In attunement parenting, we don’t just give time out as a rote response to misbehavior.  Instead, attuned parents ask “why” a child is misbehaving.  When we understand the root of a child’s misbehavior, we can better meet their needs, love them, and get long-term healthy behaviors.

    I’ve written more on Attunement Parenting and how it differs from Attachment Parenting here.

  • Intervene early: Children, like adults, have patterns of misbehavior.  We do the same wrong things again and again.  Which kids are your repeat offenders?  What are the offenses?  When you start to see things headed that way, intervene early and encourage your child to make good choices.I have a child who used to drop her pajamas on the floor every morning, and I would grumble at her every day to pick them up.  Finally, I asked her over breakfast if she was going to put them away today or drop them on the floor.  She smiled and made the right choice.

    Do you have two kids who are like oil and water together, always trying to get a rise out of the other?  Separate them before the fighting starts.  We’ve had to re-arrange seating in our minivan several times to keep the peace.

  • Redirect, a lot: If you intervene early you can often redirect behavior, rather than resorting to negative consequences.  Good redirection requires a creative and attuned parent.  Ask yourself, “Why is my child misbehaving?  What do they really need?”  Aggressive behaviors usually require physical redirection.  For example, if a child is snatching toys or yelling, they might need to ride a bike outside for a while.
  • Set clear expectations. Write a list of family rules.  We have “The Berchelmann 10 Commandments.”  It starts with “Attitude is a choice,” and includes other items such as “Pick up after yourself,” and “Be grateful, not jealous.”  Family rules are especially powerful when a child breaks one.  Rather than lecturing a child on jealousy, I just smile and say, “Be grateful, not jealous.”  When they leave their shoes on the floor I just point to shoes and say, “What’s #3?”Rules and expectations don’t work unless they are simple, clear, and discussed frequently.  We discuss our rules every morning at a family meeting, which can be in the car or over breakfast.  Some days we run through the whole list, other days we pick one rule to focus on as a family; other days kids each pick one rule they are going to work on themselves.  At dinner, we talk about it again and praise kids for successes.
  • Label behavior– Instead of getting angry, label behavior.  I got this from Sesame Street—there’s one scene where Cookie Monster is accused of lying about stealing cookies.  Frustrated and upset, Cookie Monster says, “Me glutton, not liar.”  If Sesame Street can use words like “gluttony” to label behavior, so can I.  So now we use words like “gluttony,” “patience,” “kindness,” “diligence,” and “charity.”  It sounded weird at first, but now I love it when six-year-old tells her teasing brother, “That’s not charity!”
  • Get a behavior and chore chart: Kids need lots of reminders, but parents shouldn’t be the nag.  A chore chart excuses the parent from lecturing kids about their responsibilities.  We use an iPad app, Chore Chart HD, and kids have to electronically check off their reminders each day in the afternoon.  Your chart can include behaviors as well as chores, for example: “Didn’t fight with sister,” or “had good table manners.”  Chore Chart HD syncs with our cell phones, so kids can put in their check marks while we are on the go.  If we identify a new problem behavior, it goes on the chart.
  • Be on the same page with other child care providers:  What positive reward systems are in place in your child’s classroom?  If they are working at school, try them at home, too.  Rules at school and home need to be as similar as possible.
  • Express love with both words and touch.  Say, “I love you,” especially when they are misbehaving. Touch your children every day, especially older children.  Every child needs physical touch.  If you don’t touch them, they will find someone else who will.
  • Praise effort, not outcome.  Try to praise ten times as often as you correct, but praise in
    the right way.  Praise effort, not outcome.   Too much praise can actually have an inverse effect on children’s achievement—it can set the bar too high and lead them to fear failure.  Bo Bronson of New York Times magazine wrote an excellent summary of the powerful research behind this paradoxical effect.
  • When all else fails, resort to corrective discipline, or negative consequences.  Usually this means time-out for little kids, essay writing for older kids.  I often have older children write letters of apology for misbehavior.  If a child is really angry, consider a physical punishment such as yard work, or running around the back yard.  Have a list of negative consequences in the back of your head, so you can pick the right one at the right time.And yes, my kids have laughed at me when I put them in time out.  And screamed, kicked, and said all kinds of nasty things.  But I put them in time out anyway, and they stay there until they change their attitude, and until I’m ready to be a good parent to them.  When older kids complain about the essay I’ve assigned them, they get to write a longer essay.  There are no privileges until the essay is complete—no extracurricular activities, no screens, no meals, no playing with siblings, etc.

Had enough discipline?  Ready for your home to be a more peaceful place?  Here are 5 Tricks for a More Peaceful Home—With Kids.

Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D. About Kathleen Berchelmann, M.D.

Kathleen M. Berchelmann, M.D., is a pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, director of the St. Louis Children's Hospital Social Media Team, and co-founder of the ChildrensMD hospital physician blog. Her work has been featured in print and online publications including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, and TIME magazine. She is a frequent contributor to Fox2 News STL Moms. Kathleen and her husband are raising five children.

Follow Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs Twitter: @MomDocKathleen and connect with her on .

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