Last Friday, we continued a discussion on spanking as a form of discipline by posting some reader comments and a request:

Dr Ketyer, do you have suggestions on alternatives to spanking and bullying children other than time-out? I would like to hear a follow up to this from you sometime.


Yesterday, we examined the AAP’s policy statementGuidance for Effective Discipline — for an idea of which forms of discipline work and why, and which forms do not work and why not.

My best advice for parents is to keep things simple.  Behaviors that are hurtful to the body (hitting, biting), to feelings (saying hurtful things or using inappropriate language), or to property (kicking or throwing objects in anger) get punished.  Immature and otherwise obnoxious behavior either gets ignored or should prompt the parent to briefly comment on ways to improve the behavior.

Hurtful behaviors get the punishment, which for toddlers and young children is time-out.  The reason for the time-out should be explained briefly and firmly, without yelling, in five words or less: “Don’t hit, that hurts.”  The child should be placed in a consistent time-out spot (sitting them on the floor of their bedroom or another room where there are no other people, no entertainment, and no foot-traffic for them to watch) as long as they are safe there.  The reason for the time-out should be repeated briefly: “Don’t hit, that hurts.”  The parent then should leave the room as quickly as possible.  Expect your younger child to get very upset — not with the fact that he misbehaved, but with the fact that you left him alone!  Expect him to stand up and come running after you.  Hopefully you have escaped quickly enough to give him some time to find you.  When he does, pick him up and repeat: “Don’t hit, that hurts.”  If he repeats the same behavior, repeat the time-out.

Here is the message you are giving your child with this technique: “You broke a major rule: you hurt me (or hurt my feelings or broke my iPhone when you threw it).  You need to be by yourself for a while.  I don’t want to talk to you or even look at you if you behave this way.  When you stop being hurtful, then you can find me and be with me again.”  Remember, you’re not actually saying this with words.  Rather, this will be your attitude as the parent in charge.  You are not going to be the maniac parent who yells and screams.  Your explanations will be brief and in measured tones. You are not being mean about it.  You are basically saying “I don’t want to be with you right now if you behave this way and hurt me/hurt someone else/break something” — without actually saying it.  This is a powerful message for a young child to receive. Of course, they want you to be with them!  And they will modify their behavior so they don’t feel rejected again.  It is important that the moment you accept them again in your presence has to feel like a big deal for both of you.  But your child has to understand that if he does it again, he goes back to time-out.  No screaming, no saying nasty things you will later regret, and no spanking!  No maniac parent, but rather a parent in control: the adult in the room.

Older children also need time-outs, but not in the same way.  DO NOT try to pick up your 8-year-old and put her in time-out!  She’s bigger now and she could seriously hurt you.  Worse (and this is worse), you could seriously hurt her trying to restrain her.  Older kids have longer attention spans than younger ones.  The behaviors that require discipline in older children and teens are less likely to be the mindless, impulsive ones.  Instead, behaviors that demand punishment usually leave parents scratching their heads and saying, “He should know not to do that by now!” Because of these factors, parents should take their time in reacting to bad behavior and not over-react.  As one reader put it, there was nothing good to look forward to when she heard these words:



Unfortunately, if there is a beating waiting when father gets home, children will only learn to fear their father and the pain about to be inflicted.  They won’t hear the reasons why the behavior was unacceptable, and they won’t believe the person who is doling out the pain for hurtful behavior if they are being hurt themselves!  (It’s like the smoker who tells his kids not to smoke; the speeder who tells his kids to drive the speed limit; the cusser who tells his kids to clean up their language.  Give it a rest.  Your kids won’t believe anything you say if the sentence begins: “Don’t do …”)  On the other hand, children don’t need a long lecture from you about why they shouldn’t have done what they did.  They won’t actually listen to what you’re saying (especially if they are mad or having a melt-down at that moment), and besides, talking just draws more attention to the negative behavior.

Instead, parents need to work together and be perceived as one, indivisible and believable  authority that hands out discipline. Don’t play “good cop, bad cop.”  Being philosophically split on why and how to discipline is not helpful to children, and probably not healthy for a marriage either.  Being hypocritical won’t get past your children’s well-developed BS detectors.  Being mean or violent or humiliating to make your point will only diminish their own self-esteem and hamper their own confidence, impair their competence, and disincentivize them to change behavior.

Instead, parents need to express their disappointment to their child when something hurtful, irresponsible, or disrespectful results from their behavior.  (ALL children should understand that their parents expect respect and responsibility AT ALL TIMES. While you know that’s not going to happen 100% of the time — no one’s perfect — they don’t have to know that you know!) Failure to be respectful and responsible should elicit the feeling and expression of profound disappointment in parents, leading to the consequence of either time-out or removal of privileges, or both. Time-out means “Get away from us and be by yourself.” Stubborn kids may not go away, so be prepared to pick up your things and get away from them!  And don’t feel bad when you take away your teenager’s iPhone, video game console, or Saturday night out with friends when behavior is unacceptable.  You bought them the console and games, you’re paying the monthly mobile charges, and you will be paying dearly when unacceptable behavior spills into your child’s social life.

So pick your battles: hurtful, disrespectful, and irresponsible behavior gets punished with time-out away from your presence, with the removal of desired objects or privileges, or both.  Stay calm in voice and demeanor — stay in control, even as your child loses it — and try not to use too many words during this process. When your child has a chance to chill, that might be a good time to return with love and affection and have a chat about your expectations.  Above all, don’t spank!