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Discipline

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 Behavioral parent trainers recommend applying consistent consequences for misbehavior such as a time-out or privilege removal while minimizing verbal discipline. LAURA DWIGHT/CORBIS 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).

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodDiscipline - Goals Of Discipline, Foundations For Discipline, Proactive Discipline, Discipline Responses, Conditional Sequence Of Responses