views updated May 21 2018


For many parents, the word discipline refers to punishment intended to decrease child misbehavior. In truth, the word is derived from disciplinare, referring to a system of teaching or instruction (Howard 1996). Although few would dispute the value of teaching children, the topic of parental discipline has long been controversial, even among experts. In the leading parenting book of the 1930s, Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928), John B. Watson argued that mothers should avoid being nurturant with their children. Parental nurturance and common sense made a comeback with Benjamin Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946). Discipline advice has changed from Watson's strict discipline to the permissiveness of the 1950s and 1960s to mixed messages (Forehand and McKinney 1993).

Two complementary perspectives of childrearing and parental discipline have been offered. The first perspective considers the kinds of parental discipline associated with moral thoughts and actions in normally developing children (e.g., Grusec and Kuczysnki 1997). The second perspective has focused on helping parents reduce disruptive behavior in clinically referred children, such as noncompliance, temper tantrums, defiance, and aggression (Briesmeister and Schaefer 1998; Serketich and Dumas 1996). The two perspectives complement each other concerning the goals of discipline, foundations for discipline, and proactive strategies for preventing discipline problems.

Goals of Discipline

Cognitive developmental psychologists have emphasized moral internalization and autonomy as important goals. Moral internalization is the process whereby children adopt a set of values as their own. Autonomy refers to children's growing ability to act independently. Developmental psychologists thus focus more on optimal development, such as prosocial behavior, and see problems when children comply too much with parents (Kuczynski and Hildebrandt 1997).

The goals of parent trainers using the second perspective, in contrast, have been to improve child compliance from deviant to normal rates while decreasing problem behaviors such as antisocial aggression (Roberts and Powers 1990). Note that an intermediate level of compliance is considered optimal from both perspectives. Some have criticized behavioral clinicians for their emphasis on child compliance (Houlihan et al. 1992; Kuczynski and Hildebrandt 1997). Noncompliance, however, is the most frequent complaint about clinically referred children (Forehand and McMahon 1981). Defiant noncompliance is a major risk factor for poor moral internalization as well as increased aggression, delinquency, and academic underachievement (Kochanska and Aksan 1995; Loeber and Schmaling 1985; Patterson, Reid, and Dishion 1992).

Foundations for Discipline

Cognitive developmental psychologists and behavioral parent trainers agree that the overall quality of the parent-child relationship is crucial for discipline. The relationship quality influences children's behavior directly as well as indirectly, by means of making disciplinary responses more effective.

Parental nurturance is the most crucial part of a good parent-child relationship. Disciplinary responses are more effective when parents consistently communicate love toward the child. Positive involvement, verbal and nonverbal expressions of love and concern, praise and encouragement for appropriate behavior, and calm responses to conflict all enhance moral development (Chamberlain and Patterson 1995; Kochanska and Thompson 1997; Pettit, Bates, and Dodge 1997, Rothbaum and Weisz 1994). Responding sensitively to child cues and encouraging child-directed play are two ways to express nurturance. Responding sensitively to an infant's cues makes a secure attachment to the parents more likely. A secure attachment, in turn, is associated with many aspects of appropriate development (Erickson, Sroufe, and Egeland 1985).

The more parents play with preschoolers, the fewer behavior problems appear later on (Pettit and Bates 1989). Frances Gardner (1994) found that conduct-problem children were less involved with their mothers in joint activity and constructive play. They watched more television, and they spent more time doing "nothing." Their mothers initiated fewer positive interactions and were less responsive to their children's initiatives.

Consistent with these findings, most behavioral parent training programs teach parents to initiate child-directed play times (Forehand 1993). Therapists coach parents to follow the child's lead; to describe, imitate, and praise the child's appropriate behavior; to mimic appropriate child talk; and to ignore minor misbehavior. They also train parents to avoid criticizing, instructing, or questioning during child-directed play (Hembree-Kigin and McNeil 1995). Cooperating with children's initiatives at such times has been shown to enhance their cooperating with parents at other times (Parpal and Maccoby 1985).

Proactive Discipline

Proactive discipline builds on a foundation of nurturance with specific strategies to promote appropriate behavior and to prevent inappropriate behavior. When mothers use proactive strategies as well as just reacting to misbehavior, their children behave more appropriately (Gardner et al. 1999). Cognitive developmental psychologists and behavioral parent trainers have emphasized different kinds of proactive discipline skills.

George Holden (1985) studied specific proactive strategies for two-year-old children during shopping trips. Mothers shopped when the store was not busy and when the child was not hungry or tired. Among other things they instructed the child ahead of time, kept the child occupied, and diverted attention away from tempting items.

Proactive strategies can be taught. For example, Matthews Sanders and Mark Dadds (1982) trained parents to plan daily activities, which reduced deviant child behavior in most families. Another strategy states that parents can reward a disliked activity (e.g., cleaning one's room) with a desired activity (e.g., playing outdoors).

Child behavior can also be improved simply by improving parental instructions or requests (Green, Forehand, and McMahon 1979; Roberts et al. 1978). Child cooperation is more likely when parental instructions are direct and specific, and designate a one-step task that the child is capable of (Hembree-Kigin and McNeil 1995; Houlihan 1994). Instructions are also more effective if phrased positively (do versus don't) and followed by a five-second pause (Houlihan and Jones 1990; Patterson 1982).

"Catching them being good" is another important aspect of proactive discipline. Parents of well-behaved children tend to recognize and praise appropriate behavior more than do parents of disruptive children (Grusec and Goodnow 1994). Every time a parent misses an opportunity to catch a child being good, they miss a chance to teach that child appropriate behavior (Christophersen 1988). As a result, parental attention to misbehavior may be more rewarding to children than being ignored when they are behaving appropriately (Shriver and Allen 1996).

Prime opportunities to learn new abilities were called the "zone of proximal development" by Lev Vygotsky (Vygotsky [1934] 1987). He noted that new abilities are learned one step at a time. Parents can facilitate children's learning by first demonstrating a new skill, asking leading questions, introducing the first parts of the new skill, and then giving the children more independence in performing the skill. Such skillful coaching by parents may enhance children's social skills and thereby their popularity.

Monitoring children's activities is another important proactive strategy. Supervision tends to prevent delinquency and drug abuse while enhancing popularity and scholastic achievement (Chamberlain and Patterson 1995). Monitoring takes different forms depending on the child's age. During the preteenage years, the important dimensions of monitoring include parental involvement and responsiveness. Later, knowing an adolescent's whereabouts and activities becomes a more important aspect of monitoring, reflecting an appropriate balance between parental influence and the teenager's growing independence.

Discipline Responses

In an ideal world a positive parent-child relationship and proactive discipline would be enough to prevent all misbehavior. Unfortunately, only about 6 percent of even well-educated families accomplish this by the time the child is 4 years old (Baumrind 1971). Opinions differ greatly as to how the other 94 percent should respond to misbehavior.

Cognitive developmental psychologists recommend disciplinary reasoning, while avoiding negative consequences as much as possible (Grusec and Kuczysnki 1997). In contrast, behavioral parent trainers recommend the opposite in applying consistent consequences such as a time-out or privilege removal while minimizing verbal discipline (Briesmeister and Schaefer 1998).

The cognitive developmental recommendation comes from studies showing that parents of well-behaved children rely more on reasoning, whereas the parents of poorly behaved children rely more on punishment of various kinds (Grusec and Goodnow 1994). In contrast, behavioral parent trainers criticize this approach, and feel that parents who rely too much on reasoning risk giving children more attention when they misbehave than when they behave appropriately (Blum et al. 1995). Contingent use of negative consequences— such as a time-out—is a crucial component for training these parents to manage their children's behavior more effectively.

Attribution theory provides a popular explanation of why parents of well-behaved children rely more on milder disciplinary responses. If appropriate behavior occurs without forceful parental influences, then children are more likely to attribute their behavior to their own internal motivations (e.g., "I want to behave appropriately"), thereby enhancing their internalization of those moral standards (Lepper 1983). Attribution theory assumes, however, that parents can make their children behave appropriately without being obvious about it. Cognitive developmentalists have not explained how mild disciplinary responses—such as reasoning—acquire their effectiveness in producing appropriate behavior. Nonetheless, they often recommend that parents use mild disciplinary tactics, such as reasoning, while avoiding negative consequences as much as possible (Kochanska and Thompson 1997; Pettit, Bates, and Dodge 1997). Mothers of two- and three-year-old children who followed that advice, however, witnessed an increased rate of disruptive behavior during the preschool years, while their peers' rates decreased (Larzelere et al. 1998). In contrast, the largest decrease in disruptive behavior occurred when mothers used frequent reasoning, but backed reasoning with negative consequences at least 10 percent of the time.

This finding may result from two factors. First, reasoning is more effective at decreasing the recurrence of misbehavior when combined with a negative consequence (Larzelere et al. 1996). Second, reasoning becomes more effective by itself after it has been combined with a negative consequence such as a time-out or privilege removal (Larzelere et al. 1998). By making reasoning more effective by itself, this process fulfills a prerequisite for attributions to enhance moral internalization when children start making adult-like attributions around six years of age.

Consistent with this, several studies have found that reasoning is more effective at an intermediate intensity than if used matter-of-factly. The intermediate intensity could be achieved by verbal firmness or by an accompanying negative consequence (Larzelere and Merenda 1994). When used in these ways, reasoning has consistently been an effective disciplinary response, whereas matter-of-fact reasoning is only average in its effectiveness. Thus, both reasoning and negative consequences have appropriate roles in optimal discipline. Combining reasoning with consequences when necessary stands in contrast to a sole preference for one to the exclusion of the other, which is sometimes recommended by cognitive developmental psychologists or behavioral parent trainers.

Consistent use of negative consequences is particularly crucial for children with severe behavior problems. After working extensively with anti-social children, Gerald Patterson (1982) concluded that the most important component of treatment is to teach their parents how to use nonphysical negative consequences more effectively. He was referring to time-outs, privilege removal, and grounding.

The most effective parent-training programs teach parents to use a specific time-out procedure as a consequence for critical misbehaviors (Barkley 1997; Hembree-Kigin and McNeil 1995). Although the effectiveness of time-outs for reducing misbehavior is well-documented in a variety of settings and behaviors, it can be difficult for parents to implement appropriately (Shriver and Allen 1996). Typical guidelines for time-outs include: (1) start with only a few types of misbehavior; (2) make sure children understand what is expected of them; (3) use one, and only one, warning; (4) take the child immediately to the time-out location, such as a chair in a safe, boring place; (5) set a timer for a maximum of five minutes; and (6) require the child to follow the original instruction upon completion of the time-out (Danforth 1998). Some behavioral parent trainers replace Guideline #5 with a requirement for sitting quietly at least momentarily. The quiet requirement is then gradually increased to one to five minutes (Shriver and Allen 1996).

Children sometimes refuse to follow the timeout procedure when it is first used. Practicing the entire procedure before can be helpful. Many children, however, require a backup to enforce timeout compliance (Danforth 1998; Hembree-Kigin and McNeil 1995). The most effective backups have been either two swats with an open hand to the buttocks (for children from two to six years of age) or putting the child in a room with the door closed for one minute (Roberts and Powers 1990). Withdrawing privileges or adding chores are preferable backup strategies for older children (Forgatch and Patterson 1989). If a child does not comply with the time-out procedure after six successive backup repetitions, then parents should consider an alternative back-up tactic or seek help from a mental health professional experienced in behavioral parent training (Roberts and Powers 1990).

Privilege removal or grounding has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing misbehavior (Pazulinec, Meyerrose, and Sajwaj 1983), but other studies have found that parents rarely use them (Ritchie 1999). In one interesting variation of grounding, Edward Christophersen (1988) required an older child to complete a specified job in order to terminate the grounding. Then the child can work productively toward ending the grounding rather than manipulating the parents.

Overcorrection is an innovative disciplinary tactic that encompasses two different procedures, restitution and positive practice (Axelrod, Brantner, and Meddock 1978). Restitution requires the child to restore the situation as it was prior to the misbehavior. Positive practice involves repetitive practice of an appropriate behavior to replace the problem behavior. Overcorrection has been used successfully to teach academic and toileting skills, and to reduce aggressive behavior (Azrin, Sneed, and Foxx 1973; Lenz, Singh, and Hewett 1991; Matson et al. 1979). For example, Christina Adams and Mary Lou Kelley (1992) found that a brief restitution (apology) and positive practice (doing or saying something nice) significantly reduced sibling aggression. They concluded that overcorrection and time-outs were equivalent in efficacy, but parents rated overcorrection as more acceptable.

Restraint and distraction are often used with young preschoolers. They are usually effective in putting an immediate stop to the misbehavior. They are also reasonably effective in delaying recurrences of similar misbehavior when combined with reasoning (Larzelere and Merenda 1994). However, backing up reasoning with restraint or distraction does not enhance subsequent reasoning in preschoolers as clearly as do nonphysical consequences (Larzelere 2001).

Conditional Sequence of Responses

A conditional sequence approach is one of the few attempts to combine cognitive developmental and parent-training recommendations for disciplinary responses (Larzelere 2001). First, a sound foundation should be established with parental nurturance and proactive strategies. A parent's goal should then be to establish reasoning as an effective discipline response by itself during the preschool years. Negative consequences should be used primarily to enforce verbal corrections and rationales as effective discipline responses, beginning at least by two years of age.

For example, a possible sequence of discipline responses to a preschooler's misbehavior might consist of the following steps: (1) getting the child's attention; (2) issuing a verbal directive; (3) presenting an age-appropriate rationale; (4) one warning of a time-out; (5) using a time-out; (6) one warning of a backup for the time-out; and (7) using the backup (e.g., two-swat spank or brief room isolation; Roberts and Powers 1990). For targeted or severe misbehaviors, the sequence would be followed until compliance or a mutually acceptable negotiation. Less severe misbehaviors (e.g., irritations) might be ignored rather than over-using this sequence of disciplinary tactics. Research has shown that the later steps in this sequence improve the effectiveness of the earlier steps by themselves in later discipline encounters (Larzelere et al. 1998; Roberts and Powers 1990). Once the earlier steps become effective, the later steps are rarely needed.

There are several considerations relevant to the effectiveness of this sequence of disciplinary responses. First, the sequence needs to be used flexibly, adapting it to the situation and the child. Second, parents should avoid overusing negative consequences, because they can become less effective the more frequently they are used. Parents who reserve negative consequences for more important misbehaviors tend to get better results than those who overuse them for minor misbehaviors. Third, children sometimes need to be allowed to negotiate what they do in an appropriate way. For example, a child might ask politely to take five minutes to complete an activity before getting ready for bed. Fourth, parents need to be sober and in control of their emotions. Unpredictable, explosive disciplinary responses are consistently associated with detrimental child outcomes (Chamberlain and Patterson 1995; Straus and Mouradian 1998). Finally, if spanking is used (e.g., as a backup for time-outs with two- to six-yearolds), it should never leave marks other than temporary redness. Its use is empirically supported primarily as a backup for milder disciplinary tactics such as time-out with two- to six-year-old children by loving parents in control of their emotions (Larzelere 2000).


Parental discipline is a complex responsibility. Those parents who are successful develop an appropriate foundation for discipline, provide good strategies for proactive discipline, and use effective but nonabusive disciplinary responses.

Successful parents also find their own authoritative balance of love and limits, avoiding the extremes of overly permissive or overly punitive discipline. Yet a range of authoritative approaches all work well. Somewhat strict parenting works reasonably well as long as it is clearly motivated by love and concern. Fairly permissive parenting also works as long as parents can enforce important limits with reasonable methods when needed.

See also:Attachment: Parent-Child Relationships; Child Abuse: Physical Abuse and Neglect; Childcare; Childhood; Conduct Disorders; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Coparenting; Development: Moral; Family and Relational Rules; Forgiveness; Juvenile Delinquency; Oppositionality; Parenting Education; Parenting Styles; Religion; Spanking; Stepfamilies; Temperament; Therapy: Parent-Child Relationships


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views updated Jun 08 2018


Throughout American history adults have sought to produce orderly behavior in children. Although many parents and educators expressed their own frustration with a boisterous, willful, or recalcitrant child, most sought to instill values and behaviors that would govern the individual as an adult. Their degree of reliance on corporal punishment, habit formation, control of the environment, or moral suasion has fluctuated through the centuries, reflecting change in concepts of desirable behavior and expectations of children in the family, workplace, and society.

Native American and Colonial Children

Native American children prior to European contact seem to have enjoyed an indulged childhood followed by initiation rites, which occurred at the onset of puberty. Born on an average at four-year intervals, they received protracted breast-feeding and the attention of their mothers, who carried them on their backs in cradleboards. Allowed to crawl when they were ready and to run about freely by the age of three, children were not disciplined with corporal punishment. Instead, instructed by their parents and members of the community in tasks designated by gender, they were chastised by shaming. At the onset of menstruation, girls were separated from the group and told to fast. Boys of the same age were isolated, confined, and given substances that induced visions as guides to life. Such practices marked a clear line between childhood and adulthood, as young men and women assumed the tasks designated by their cultures.

In seventeenth-century England, infants were shaped by midwives and then swaddled in the belief that the human body could not support itself. Children were breast-fed for about a year by their mothers or a wet nurse whose care could sometimes be negligent. Because crawling was thought to indicate animal behavior, children were encouraged to remain upright by the use of tight corsets under their long robes, leading strings attached to their shoulders, and standing or walking stools in which they could be left for long periods of time. Both boys and girls were corrected with corporal punishment as they grew. When the English settled the Chesapeake colonies, these practices were altered by the circumstances of the new environment. Some 70 to 85 percent of the immigrants arrived as indentured servants, one-third to two-thirds of whom were under the age of twenty. These youngsters and youths were disciplined by the routines of tobacco production and chastised with corporal punishment or shaming. They and the children born in Virginia and Maryland suffered the effects of the region's high mortality rate. Half of the children born would not live to the age of twenty, and over half of those who survived lost one or both parents. Although orphans were placed under the care of guardians and sent to live with another family, they came under the direction of adults who may themselves have lacked the loving care of parents. These conditions, however, also mitigated discipline by limiting the power of a patriarchal father and throwing youngsters on their own at an early age.

Religious beliefs also mitigated practices of discipline. English Puritans, who settled New England, believed in the depravity of the newborn child, who inherited original sin. Infants may not have been swaddled and were breast-fed by their mothers, but when they showed signs of autonomy, their parents restrained them in order to create habitual tractability. As children grew, fathers as well as mothers participated in their governance, instructing them by example and exhortation, and correcting with corporal punishment when they considered it necessary. Yet Puritans were restrained by their belief in the reciprocity of relationships: children owed parents honor and obedience, but parents owed children protection and care. Quakersthe more radical Puritans who settled Pennsylvaniarejected belief in the depravity of the newborn child and encouraged spiritual development in a loving family atmosphere. In order to protect children, they sought to shelter them from sinful influences. The Quaker family became a controlled environment in which the child's will was subject to that of the parents. But Quaker authority was nurturing and sought to buttress autonomy; parents appealed to reason in their children and taught them subordination less to individuals than to a community of values.

Influence of John Locke

In his 1693 Some Thoughts Concerning Education John Locke suggested that child-rearing practices be designed to develop the rational, autonomous adult. He had argued in his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding that the child resembled a blank tablet (tabula rasa ) at birth and received knowledge through sense impressions, which were ordered by the innate power of reason. The task of the parent was to build in the child the strong body and habits of mind that would allow the capacity of reason to develop. To build the strong constitution, Locke advocated loose clothing, fresh air, and exercise. To teach denial of appetite, he urged little behavioral lessons in the first year of life, in which the parent denied the child something he clearly wanted. Once habits of self-denial and obedience were established, parents could reward good behavior with their esteem and punish bad behavior with disgracethe withdrawal of parental approval and affection. As the child developed the capacity to reason, he could be granted increasing independence while the parent assumed a new role of friend.

Locke's advice was directed to the education of a gentleman's son but was applied to the education of girls in the periodical the Spectator (17111714), copies of which inundated the colonies in the eighteenth century. Stories addressed to women and girls spurned fashion while advocating reason, virtue, and gentle wit, and popularized new conceptions of the affectionate, anti-patriarchal family. By the 1740s, British physicians elaborated on Locke's advice, and John Newbery began to print books designed to amuse as well as to instruct children. Avant-garde colonial parents purchased alphabet blocks to make learning pleasant and had children's portraits painted in slightly relaxed attitudes, celebrating the playful aspects of childhood. Popularizations of Locke's advice arrived in America with imports of an expanding consumer economy and widespread aspiration to genteel behavioral ideals. Parents attempted to mold their children to gentility, and some youngsters drew on these materials to discipline themselves. For example, the printer's apprentice Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write in the 1720s by copying articles in the Spectator. In 1746 the fourteen-yearold George Washington consciously acquired self-restraint by copying "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior" into his commonplace book.

Slavery and Revolution

In the eighteenth century, however, increased transport of African slaves brought large numbers of teenagers and many children to the colonies. These youngsters and youths, cut off from their families and original cultures, were put to work in agricultural labor and disciplined harshly with corporal punishment. Slave children were subject to the discipline of both their masters and their parents or kin. Children born in the colonies shared their mothers with the tasks required of slaves and often lived separately from their fathers. Although they were allowed to play when young, their parents may have curbed signs of autonomy in order to prepare them for survival in slavery. Growing up in a slave society also affected parental discipline of white children, who found themselves masters at an early age. Thomas Jefferson, who agreed with Locke that personality was formed by environmental influences, feared that children observing the harsh discipline of slaves would learn to imitate it and not attain mastery of their own behavior.

The American Revolution imparted political significance to the discipline of children, as cultural leaders sought to create a genuinely republican society. Personal independence and individual autonomy became desirable goals, but self-restraint was deemed essential in future citizens. The task of forming personality in early childhood was allocated to mothers and the creation of common social bonds was allocated to schools. Although Americans did not wholeheartedly approve Jean-Jacques Rousseau's 1762 Émile, they did adopt his concept of the natural child, whose personality could be formed through manipulation of the environment. In his 1825 Treatise on the Physical and Medical Treatment of Children, Dr. William Potts Dewees recommended maternal breast-feeding and the loose clothing, fresh air, and exercise that had been advocated by eighteenth-century physicians. But he also urged parents to instill obedience through strict control of issues such as the child's diet. And he allocated to children special nursery space in the middle-class household, where they could play with a proliferation of new toys under the constant surveillance of the mother.

The Nineteenth Century

By the mid-nineteenth century a widespread movement of evangelical Protestantism reinforced the emphasis on affectionate maternal persuasion to help the child develop internalized restraint through guilt. As the middle class became more child-centered, a romantic concept of childhood emerged, in which the young seemed to possess a special spiritual sensibility. But the lives of children also became more regimented with the development of systems of agegraded public schools. With maturation of a capitalist economy, class differences in discipline became pronounced. Working-class parents expected children to contribute to family support inside and outside the home. Those who were immigrants demanded deference from their children and lacked the time and energy for moral suasion. Many resorted to corporal punishment and were frustrated when the freedom of urban streets lured children from their control. Some urban children found themselves committed by city magistrates or their parents to institutions such as the Houses of Refuge, where they were placed under strict regimens designed to instill orderly habits and reform character. Children who grew up on farms also were expected to work, continuing earlier patterns through which parents instructed the young in daily tasks designated by gender.

As the nineteenth century progressed, social critics became alarmed that mothers and female teachers had assumed the rearing of middle-class boys, while working-class and immigrant youth lacked adequate outlets for dangerous male instincts. The result was an emphasis on masculine aspects of Christianity and the founding of organizations such as the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), which championed the manly, character-building force of competitive sports. By the turn of the century, after-school gymnastics, basketball, and volleyball became a means to acquire physical discipline and practice teamwork. The scientific study of children produced works such as the 1904 Adolescence, by G. Stanley Hall, which defined the teenage years as a period of emotional stress and which also prolonged the protected middle-class childhood. Progressive educators who followed the ideas of John Dewey advocated liberty in classrooms to achieve self-direction and creative expression for children, but the general trend was toward increasing adult direction of young people's leisure time.

The Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century, child-rearing experts abandoned a romantic view of childhood and advocated formation of proper habits to discipline children. A 1914 U.S. Children's Bureau pamphlet, Infant Care, urged a strict schedule and admonished parents not to play with their babies. John B. Watson's 1924 Behaviorism argued that parents could train malleable children by rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, and by following precise schedules for food, sleep, and other bodily functions. Although such principles began to be rejected as early as the 1930s, they were firmly renounced in the 1946 Baby and Child Care, by pediatrician Benjamin Spock, which told parents to trust their own instincts and to view the child as a reasonable, friendly human being. Dr. Spock revised his first edition to urge more parent-centered discipline in 1957, but critics blamed his popular book for its permissive attitude during the youth rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s.

The affluent consumer society that followed World War II provided parents with the tactic of disciplining children by denying toys or the right to watch a favorite television program. Contemporary experts favor reasonable discussion and nonpunitive techniques that will allow the child to maintain a positive attitude toward the parent. Adults demonstrate the consequences of actions, set firm boundaries and rules, and punish with time-outs and isolation. Yet national surveys show that many parents still resort to corporal punishment. And as mothers as well as fathers participate in the work force to survive or to achieve or maintain middle-class status, many children still are thrown on their own without parental guidance much of the time.

See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature.


Calvert, Karin. 1992. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 16001900. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Clement, Priscilla Ferguson. 1997. Growing Pains: Children in the Industrial Age, 18501900. New York: Twayne.

Demos, John. 1970. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. New York: Oxford University Press.

Illick, Joseph E. 2002. American Childhoods. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Rawlins, Roblyn. 2001. "Discipline." In Boyhood in America: An Encyclopedia ed. Priscilla Ferguson Clement and Jacqueline S. Reinier. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Reinier, Jacqueline S. 1996. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 17751850. New York: Twayne.

Jacqueline S. Reinier


views updated May 23 2018



The term "discipline" comes from the Latin word "disciplinare," which means "to teach." Many people, however, associate the word with punishment, which falls short of the full meaning of the word. Discipline, properly practiced, uses a multifaceted approach, including models, rewards, and punishments that teach and reinforce desired behavior. Through discipline, children are able to learn self-control, self-direction, competence, and a sense of caring.


The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that an effective discipline system must contain three elements. If these three aspects are all present in a program of discipline, the result generally is improved child behavior. The elements are:

  • a learning environment characterized by positive, supportive parent-child relationships
  • a proactive strategy for systematic teaching and strengthening of desired behaviors
  • a reactive strategy for decreasing or eliminating undesired behaviors

There are several reasons why children may not behave properly, including a lack of effective disciplinary measures. Children also commonly misbehave when they are deprived of adult attention or when they are tired, bored, or hungry. Children from families affected by divorce and separation, poverty, substance abuse, and parental depression seem to be at greater risk for behavior problems. There may also be biologic factors such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain temperaments that predispose particular children towards misbehavior. There is also research suggesting that harsh disciplinary measures may actually increase poor behavior.

Ideally, discipline is based on appropriate expectations for each child, based on age and stage of development. It should be used to set reasonable limits in a consistent manner while still allowing some choice among acceptable alternatives. Discipline teaches both social and moral standards and should protect children from harm by teaching what is safe. It should also guide children to respect the rights and property of others.

Though there are a variety of ways in which children may be disciplined, there are some guidelines that all parents should follow:

  • Discipline must be age appropriate. While reasoning and verbal explanations may be appropriate for the older child, children younger than 18 months are typically unable to comprehend the reasons for punishment.
  • Parents should demonstrate a unified front when it comes to discipline. If parents exhibit opposing approaches, children learn to exploit these differences.
  • Rules should be few but simple. Punishment should be a logical or natural consequence of the misbehavior.
  • Though consistency is important, parents should remember that it is sometimes appropriate to be flexible and allow for some negotiation, especially with older children. Doing so can teach decision-making, enhance children's moral judgment, and reinforce independence.

Disciplinary techniques that are most effective take place in the context of a loving and secure relationship between parent and child. Parents' responses to a child's behavior, whether approving or disapproving, are likely to have a greater effect in a secure, loving environment, because children long for their parents' approval. As children respond to this positive relationship and consistent discipline, the need for negative interaction decreases.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement focuses on good behavior rather than on undesirable behavior. Parents should identify appropriate behaviors and give frequent feedback, rewarding good behavior quickly so that the child associates the "prize" with the wanted behavior. A reward can be a word of praise, a special activity, additional privileges, or material items. Many desirable behavioral patterns start to emerge as a part of the child's normal development. The role of parents is to notice these behaviors and provide positive attention to them. Some other desirable behaviors are not part of a child's normal development and need to be modeled and taught by their parents. These behaviors include sharing, good manners, effective study habits, among others. Parents need to identify those skills and behaviors they want their children to demonstrate and then make a concerted effort to teach and strengthen those behaviors. Children who learn through positive reinforcement tend to internalize the newly learned behaviors.


Extinction is a type of discipline that seeks to prevent inadvertent positive reinforcement for negative behavior. "Time-out" is one of the most common methods in this category. For younger children, time out usually involves removing parental attention and praise or placing the child a chair or some other place for a specified time with no parental interaction. The environment should be neutral, boring, and safe. Time-out works well for children from 18 months up to five or six years of age and is particularly useful for temper tantrums , yelling, whining, and fighting. The session should end only when the child has been calm and quiet for at least 15 seconds. Time out should last for a specified time, usually one minute per year of life (to a maximum of five minutes). Withholding privileges is another form of extinction that is more appropriate for older children and adolescents. This strategy requires the removal of a valued privilege and works best if it is used infrequently.

Verbal punishment

Parents may express disapproval of a behavior by scolding or yelling. This may be effective if used very sparingly. However, if used too often it can cause anxiety in the child and encourage the child to ignore the parent.

Corporal punishment

Corporal punishment involves the application of some sort of physical pain in response to a child's undesired behavior. This response can range from a light slapping of a hand to severe beatings that qualify as child abuse . Because of this range in form and severity, the use of corporal punishment as a disciplinary method is controversial. In spite of the significant concerns raised by child-care experts, one form of physical punishmentspankingremains a widely used measure to reduce undesired behavior in children. Over 90 percent of all families report having used spanking at some time as a means of discipline. Despite its common acceptance, research shows that spanking is a less effective form of discipline than others, such as time-out or removal of privileges. Although it may immediately stop a behavior, the effectiveness of spanking tends to decrease with repeated use. The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to increase its intensity, which runs the risk of escalating to abuse. Spanking, at best, is only effective when used in selective, very infrequent situations.

Children who receive corporal punishment tend to grow into angry adults. The use of spanking in older children is associated with higher rates of substance abuse and crime and has been linked to poor self-esteem , depression, and poor educational performance.


Discipline strategies with infants should be passive. The main goal is for parents to generally structure daily routines but to also demonstrate flexibility in meeting infants' emerging needs. As infants become more mobile, parents need to impose some limitations and structure in order to create a safe environment in which the child can play and explore. Parents must protect infants from all potential hazards in the home by instituting childproofing practices. If a child does attempt to play with or approach something dangerous or unacceptable, a firm "No" should suffice, along with either removing the child from the area or by distracting the child with an alternative activity. Parents should not expect that reasoning or reprimands will control the behavior of an infant.


Toddlers, like infants, still benefit most from passive types of discipline and a toddler-safe environment. Again, saying "No", along with redirecting behavior, is usually effective if the toddler is doing something unacceptable. At this stage, however, children are starting to test the limits of their power over and over again. It is important for parents to consistently set limits and stick to them. Doing so reduces the child's confusion and his or her need to test. This is also the time when time-outs might be introduced, especially when redirecting the child's attention no longer seems to work.


Preschoolers are starting to understand the need for rules, and their behavior should be guided by these rules and the associated consequences. It is very important that children understand what is expected of them and why they are punished for a particular behavior. Preschoolers also learn from having their good behaviors rewarded.

School age

If rules for behavior have been consistently modeled and expected by the parents, children should exhibit an increased sense of responsibility and self-control when they become school age. Timeouts and consequences continue to be effective disciplinary measures in this age group. As children continue to mature and desire more responsibility and independence, teaching them to deal with the consequences of their behavior is an effective method of discipline. By the time they have become teenagers, children should know what is expected of them and what the potential consequences of misbehavior are. However, discipline remains just as important for teens as it does for younger children. Teens require boundaries. This structure continues to provide order and a sense of security for children until they reach adulthood. When teens do break rules, taking away some of their privileges seems to be the most effective type of disciplinary measure.

Common problems

One of the most common problems in child discipline is an inconsistent approach between two parents. It may prove helpful for parents to regularly communicate regarding their child's behavior and decide ahead of time what disciplinary methods are to be used.

Parental concerns

Parents may be worried that the disciplinary methods they have decided are appropriate for their child may not be respected or followed by teachers and other adult caregivers. If this is a concern, parents should outline exactly what consequences or punishments they feel are appropriate and communicate openly with the other adults who care for their child.


Punishment The application of a negative stimulus to reduce or eliminate a behavior. The two types typically used with children are verbal reprimands and punishment involving physical pain, as in corporal punishment.

Time-out A discipline strategy that entails briefly isolating a disruptive child in order to interrupt and avoid reinforcement of negative behavior.



MacKenzie, Robert J. Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child: Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm and Respectful Boundaries. Prima Lifestyles, 2001.


Banks, J. Burton. "Childhood Discipline: Challenges for Clinicians and Parents." American Family Physician (October 15, 2002).

Regalado, Michael, et al. "Parents' Discipline of Young Children: Results from the National Survey of Early Childhood Health." Pediatrics 113 (June 2004): 19521958.

Sears, William. "A Beginner's Guide to Discipline: Dr. William Sears Offers Six Strategies to Use Now to Help You Raise a Child Who's a TreatNot a Terror." Baby Talk (September 1, 2003): 52.


Center for Effective Discipline. 155 West Main St., Suite 1603, Columbus, OH 43215. Web site: <http://stophitting.com>.

Positive Parenting. 402 West Ojai Avenue, 101246, Ojai, CA 93023. Web site: <www.positiveparenting.com>.


"Disciplining Your Child." KidsHealth, June 2001. Available online at <www.kidshealth.org/parent/positive/family/discipline.html> (accessed December 27, 2004).

Deanna M. Swartout-Corbeil, RN


views updated Jun 11 2018

dis·ci·pline / ˈdisəplin/ • n. 1. the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience: a lack of proper parental and school discipline. ∎  the controlled behavior resulting from such training: he was able to maintain discipline among his men. ∎  activity or experience that provides mental or physical training: the tariqa offered spiritual discipline | Kung fu is a discipline open to old and young. ∎  a system of rules of conduct: he doesn't have to submit to normal disciplines.2. a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education: sociology is a fairly new discipline.• v. [tr.] train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience: many parents have been afraid to discipline their children. ∎  (often be disciplined) punish or rebuke (someone) formally for an offense: a member of the staff was to be disciplined by management. ∎  (discipline oneself to do something) train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way: every month discipline yourself to go through the file.DERIVATIVES: dis·ci·plin·a·ble adj.dis·ci·pli·nal / -nəl/ adj.


views updated May 29 2018


Discipline is the practice of guiding children's behavior toward an acceptable direction as judged by parents, teachers, and society. Discipline can take many different forms, including corporal punishment, which is characterized by physical contact between the parent (or teacher or some other adult) and the child; time-out, where the child is removed from the setting in which the misbehavior occurred; and nonphysical punishment, where an unpleasant, but not physical, consequence follows the behavior. While discipline can take many forms, the results of many studies indicate that nonphysical punishment, accompanied by an explanation, is most effective in changing a child's behavior. Physical punishment sets a poor role model to resolve conflicts and deal with problems, and suppresses but does not replace misbehavior.



"Alternatives to Discipline." Available from http://childparenting.about.com/parenting/childparenting/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http//www.awareparenting.comtwenty.htm; INTERNET.

"How to Discipline Children." Available from http://childparenting.about.com/parenting/childparenting/library/blhowto.htm; INTERNET.

Kennedy, Rodney Wallace. The Encouraging Parent: How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids and Start Teaching Them Confidence, Self-Discipline, and Joy. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

Neil J.Salkind


views updated May 21 2018

185. Discipline

  1. chicken indicates martinetish authority. [Military Slang: Wentworth, 98]
  2. Patton, General George (18851945) U.S. Army general known for imposing rigid discipline on his troops. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 2083]
  3. Puritans strictly religious and morally disciplined colonists. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 551]
  4. spare the rod and spoil the child axiomatic admonition. [O.T.: Proverbs 13:24]
  5. Spartans Doric people noted for bravery, frugality, and stern self-discipline. [Gk. Hist.: Payton, 640]
  6. West Point U.S. Military Academy focusing on discipline as part of training. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 729]


views updated May 17 2018

discipline chastisement, penitential correction XIII; †instruction, schooling; branch of learning XIV; training in action or conduct XV; system of control over conduct XVI. — OF. — L. disciplīna, f. discipulus (see prec.).
So disciplinary XVI. — medL. disciplinarian XVI.