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Child discipline is the set of rules, rewards and punishments administered to teach self control, increase desirable behaviors and decrease undesirable behaviors in children. In its most general sense, discipline refers to systematic instruction given to a disciple. To discipline thus means to instruct a person to follow a particular code of conduct.[1] While the purpose of child discipline is to develop and entrench desirable social habits in children, the ultimate goal is to foster sound judgement and morals so the child will develop and maintain self discipline throughout the rest of his or her life.

Child discipline is a topic that draws from a wide range of interested fields, such as parents, the professional practice of behavior analysis, developmental psychology, social work, and various religious perspectives. Because the values, beliefs, education, customs and cultures of people vary so widely, along with the age and temperament of the child, methods of child discipline vary widely.

In western society, there has been debate in recent years over the use of corporal punishment for children in general, and increased attention has been given to the concept of "positive parenting" where good behaviour is encouraged and rewarded.[2]

Historical perspectives

Historical research suggests that there has always a been a great deal of individual variation in methods of discipline and thus no century was notably cruel or kind.[3]

Biblical views

The Book of Proverbs from the Bible mention the importance of disciplining children, as opposed to leaving them neglected or unruly, in several verses. Interpretation of these verses varies, as do many passages from the Bible, from literal to metaphorical. The most often paraphrased is from Proverbs 13:24 "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." Other passages that mention the 'rod' are Proverbs 23:14, "Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell," and Proverbs 29:15, "The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame."[4]

Although the Bible's lessons have been paraphrased for hundreds of years, the modern phrase, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," was coined by Samuel Butler, in Hudibras, a mock heroic narrative poem, published in 1663.

Medieval views

File:Koerperstrafe- MA Birkenrute.png

Medieval schoolboy birched on the bare buttocks

The primary guidelines followed by medieval parents in training their children were from the Bible. Scolding was considered ineffectual, and cursing a child was a terrible thing.[5] In general, the use of corporal punishment was as a disciplinary action taken to shape behavior, not a pervasive dispensing of beatings for no reason. Corporal punishment was undoubtedly the norm. The medieval world was a dangerous place, and it could take harsh measures to prepare a child to live in it. Pain was the medieval way of illustrating that actions had consequences.[6]

Influence of John Locke

In his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding English physician and philosopher John Locke argued that the child resembled a blank tablet (tabula rasa) at birth, and was not inherently full of sin. In his 1693 Some Thoughts Concerning Education he suggested that 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, and that parents could reward good behavior with their esteem and punish bad behavior with disgrace–the withdrawal of parental approval and affection, as opposed to beatings.[7]

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.[7]

American psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs developed a pragmatic method for understanding the purposes of reprehensible behaviour in children and for stimulating cooperative behaviour without punishment or reward. He suggested that human misbehavior is the result of feeling a lack of belonging to one's social group. When this happens the child acts from one of four "mistaken goals": attention, power, revenge or avoidance (inadequacy). His theory predicts that children would learn to cooperate reasonably without being penalized or rewarded if they feel that they are valuable contributors.

The return of the rod

Following the turbulent and permissive era of the 1960s and early 1970s, American evangelical Christian James Dobson sought the return of a more conservative society and aimed to promote Biblical parenting. In 1977 he published the first of several parenting books, Dare to Discipline, which advocated spanking of children up to age eight and promoted discipline which would allow "the God of our fathers to be introduced to our beloved children."[8]

In a day of widespread drug usage, immorality, civil disobedience, vandalism, and violence, we must not depend on hope and luck to fashion the critical attitudes we value in our children. That unstructured technique was applied during the childhood of the generation which is now in college, and the outcome has been quite discouraging. Permissiveness has not just been a failure; it's been a disaster![8]

Dobson's position is controversial. As early as 1985 The New York Times stated that "most child-care experts today disapprove of physical punishment."[9]

As of 2009 there are hundreds of books, websites, and articles giving varying parenting advice and opinions. While opinion-givers may not agree on the best way to rear children or the best methods of discipline, some recommend consistency for effective discipline[citation needed]. Many also discourage spanking and other physical methods of punishment.[citation needed]

Corporal punishment

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In many cultures, parents have historically had the right to spank their children when appropriate. Attitudes and legislation in some countries have changed in recent years, particularly in continental Europe. Domestic corporal punishment has now (2009) been outlawed in 24 countries around the world, beginning with Sweden in 1979. Most of these 24 countries are in Europe or Latin America. Thirty years after Sweden's ban, official figures show that just 10 percent of Swedish children are spanked or otherwise struck by their parents today. More than 90 percent of Swedish children were smacked prior to the ban.[10] The Swedish law does not actually lay down any legal punishment for smacking but requires social workers to support families with problems.[10] However, the law has not prevented assaults on children in Sweden from increasing significantly in recent years.[11]

In North America, Britain and much of the rest of the English-speaking world, corporal punishment remains highly controversial. In the United States, corporal punishment of children by their parents remains lawful in all 50 states.

The effectiveness of corporal punishment is disputed. Those opposed to spanking[who?] argue that other methods of child discipline are both more humane and more effective than physical punishment such as spanking. Some studies have suggested that spanking may lead to more misbehaviour in the long run, and some researchers have linked what they describe as "authoritarian" child-rearing with children who withdraw, lack spontaneity, and have lesser evidence of conscience.[12][13][14][15]

A 2006 retrospective report study in New Zealand showed that physical punishment of children was quite common in the 1970s and 80s, with 80% of the sample reporting some kind of corporal punishment from parents at some time during childhood. Among this sample, 29% reported being hit with an empty hand, 45% with an object, and 6% were subjected to serious physical abuse. The study noted that abusive physical punishment tended to be given by fathers and often involved striking the child's head or torso instead of the buttocks or limbs.[16]

Non-violent discipline

An increasing number of parents and child behavioralists are recommending that spanking and physical punishments should never be used. Thirty U.S. states have banned corporal punishments from schools, and several other countries, mainly in Europe and Latin America, have banned its practice completely (from schools and at home). Opponents argue that physical abuse of children should never be necessary, while others argue that removing the fear of physical discipline results in uncontrollable youths.[citation needed]

Non-violent discipline consists of both punitive and non-punitive methods, but does not include any forms of corporal punishment such as smacking or spanking. There is an active effort on the parts of parenting professionals and organizations to shift traditional parental use of corporal punishment to non-violent methods. The regular use of any single form of discipline becomes less effective when used too often, a process psychologists call habituation. Thus, no single method is considered to be for exclusive use. Experts[who?] recommend that parents and caregivers use a variety of discipline methods that are appropriate for the situation and that allow for discussion and learning opportunities.[citation needed]


Scolding involves reproving or criticizing a child's negative behavior and/or actions. Just as verbal praise may be a powerful reinforcer for most children, verbal scolding may be a sufficient punishment on its own. As with other punitive methods, over-reliance on scolding may lessen its effectiveness. Reproving (calm but firm scolding) is preferable to yelling, causing the occasional raised voice in more severe circumstances to have greater effect.[citation needed]

Constant yelling is frequently tuned out by children, especially when there is no follow-up. Verbal abuse and personal attacks may create lack of self-esteem, resentment, feelings of being powerless, and feelings of isolation.[citation needed]


A common method of toddler discipline is sending the child away from the family or group after misbehavior. This is sometimes referred to as a "time out" or being sent to the "naughty chair". Older children may be told to stand in the corner or may be sent to their rooms for a period of time.

Logical consequences

Logical consequences are a form of punishment with artificial consequences for misbehavior. For example, if a teenager uses the family car without permission, a logical consequence would be that the car is off-limits for a period of time, ideally when the teenager is inconvenienced.[citation needed]


Bribes are tangible rewards given to children in order to stop bad behavior. Most experts consider this to be rewarding bad behavior and strongly recommend against it. Bribes may work in the short term, but children may quickly begin to expect payment for their good behavior.[citation needed]


Grounding is a form of punishment, usually for older children, preteens and teenagers, that restricts their movement outside of the home, such as visiting friends or using the car. Sometimes it is combined with the withdrawal of privileges.

Non-punitive discipline

While punishments may be of limited value in consistently influencing rule-related behavior, non-punitive discipline techniques have been found to have greater impact on children who have begun to master their native language.[17] Non-punitive discipline (also known as empathic discipline and positive discipline) is an approach to child-rearing that does not use any form of punishment. It is about loving guidance, and requires parents to have a strong relationship with their child so that the child responds to gentle guidance as opposed to threats and punishment. According to Dr. Laura Markham, the most effective discipline strategy is to make sure your child wants to please you.[18]

Non-punitive discipline also excludes systems of "manipulative" rewards. Instead, a child's behaviour is shaped by "democratic interaction" and by deepening parent-child communication. The reasoning behind it is that while punitive measures may stop the problem behavior in the short term, by themselves they do not provide a learning opportunity that allows children the autonomy to change their own behaviour.[19] Although limits are set and rules enforced, the methods of discipline involved are based on whether it strengthens or weakens a parent’s relationship with the child. Many studies show that punishment makes children feel worse about themselves, undermines the relationship with the child and sets up power struggles, which all contribute to make the children act worse.[citation needed] Punishments such as Time-outs may be seen as banishment and humiliating. Consequences as a form of punishment are not recommended, but natural consequences are considered to be possibly worthwhile learning experiences provided there is no risk of lasting harm.[18]

Positive discipline is a general term that refers to both non-violent discipline and non-punitive discipline. Criticizing, discouraging, creating obstacles and barriers, blaming, shaming, using sarcastic or cruel humor, or using physical punishment are some negative disciplinary methods used with young children. Any parent may occasionally do any of these things, but doing them more than once in a while may lead to low self-esteem becoming a permanent part of the child's personality.[20]

Authors in this field include Aletha Solter, Alfie Kohn, Pam Leo, Haim Ginott, Thomas Gordon and Lawrence J. Cohen.

Essential aspects

Positive discipline is just a part of the positive parenting concept and is based on minimizing the child's frustrations and misbehavior rather than giving punishments. The foundation of this style of discipline is getting children to feel good about themselves and building the parent's relationship with the child so the child wants to please the parent. To achieve this, children need some time with parents every day that they can enjoy and feel good about. Children recognize a parent's love through the time spent with them. Discipline and teaching work best within such positive relationships.[21] Other important aspects are reasonable and age-appropriate expectations, feeding healthy foods and providing enough rest, giving clear instructions which may need to be repeated, looking for the causes of any misbehavior and making adjustments, and building routines. Children are helped by knowing what is happening in their lives. Having some predictability about their day without necessarily being regimental will help reduce frustration and misbehavior.[21]



Distraction is a method of stopping very young children (under age three) from continuing a problem behavior by removing them from the situation. The distraction method relies on the fact that young children have very short attention spans, so it becomes less useful as the child matures. Also, a child who is young enough to be reliably distracted from misbehavior, is generally also too young to have the necessary attention or capacity for self-control to make deliberate long-term changes in behavior (though there may still be unconscious changes through conditioning). Thus, it is argued, punishing a child at this age would be pointless and serve only to create unnecessary turmoil.[citation needed]


A time-out involves isolating or separating a child for a few minutes, and is intended to give an over-excited child time to calm down. The theory behind the time-out is that children who throw tantrums, between the ages of two and five, may be frightened by their own lack of control, and when given the chance to regain self-control on their own in a quiet place free of distractions, learn to develop internal self-control.[citation needed]

File:Skamvrån av Carl Larsson 1894.jpg

Time-out, painting by Carl Larsson

Alternatively, time-outs have been recommended as a time for parents to separate feelings of anger toward the child for their behavior and to develop a plan for discipline. Time-outs are also frequently used as a punishment, however, most experts[who?] do not advocate this.[citation needed] Other methods of discipline are more appropriate when a child makes a calm, deliberate choice to misbehave.[citation needed]

Praise and rewards

Praise (encouraging words) and intangible rewards (hugs, time with the child, etc.) is an effective method of encouraging good behavior.[citation needed] Simply giving the child spontaneous expressions of appreciation or acknowledgement when they are not misbehaving will act as a reinforcer for good behaviour.

It is very common for children who are otherwise ignored by their parents to turn to misbehaviour as a way of seeking attention.[22] An example is a child screaming for attention. Parents often inadvertently reward the bad behavior by immediately giving them the attention, thereby reinforcing it. On the other hand, parents may wait until the child calms down and speaks politely, then reward the more polite behavior with the attention.

While punishment may be more effective in the short term, experts[who?] suggest that occasional rewards may be more effective at producing long-term behavioural changes.[citation needed] Punishment often simply teaches a child to not get caught performing the undesirable behavior. Regular punishment tends to create resentment and the child will eventually become less motivated to please the parent and may also take out his frustration on others.[citation needed]

Research in behavioural psychology suggests that "extrinsic rewards" (rewards that are external to the behaviour) might undermine "intrinsic rewards" (rewards that come from the mere act of performing the behavior itself) if the extrinsic reward is tangible, is expected, and is not tied to quality of performance. So, a child who enjoys reading finds it an intrinsically rewarding act. However if the child were given money for every book he read (an extrinsic reward), his enjoyment of reading might decrease. Rewarding a child with encouragement and positive attention will not decrease any intrinsic enjoyment they receive from good behavior, but care should be taken with tangible rewards such as money, toys or sweets, which may turn into bribes.[citation needed]

Natural consequences

Natural consequences involve children learning from their own mistakes. For instance, if a child forgets to bring his lunch to school, he will find himself hungry later. Advocates of this approach believe the lesson will be remembered better than through punishments or constant nagging.[citation needed] While this approach may not be effective for very young children, who do not yet have a firm understanding of cause and effect, it becomes increasingly more effective as the child matures.[citation needed] A variation on this is offering controlled choices, either of which the parent must be agreeable to. For example, a child may be given a choice to have a nap now and stay up later, or play now and go to bed early.[citation needed]


Advocates of "non-violent discipline" claim that modelling is an extremely effective disciplinary tool, but it also places the greatest demands upon the parent.[citation needed] According to this view, the parent must consistently show the child what kind of life is expected of him by not doing anything that the parent will not allow the child to do. It is asserted that showing the child appropriate behaviour will teach the child faster and more deeply than will disciplinary action for misbehaviour. Supporters of this view[who?] state that modelling shows the child by example that the parent is willing to "walk the walk" as well as "talk the talk."[citation needed]

At the same time, it is understood that obsession with portraying parental perfection to the child can be very detrimental to the child. When the parent errs, rather than covering up the error, advocates strongly suggest admitting the error, talking about it, and openly living through its consequences.[citation needed] The combination of a dedicated, sincere, consistent effort on the part of the parent to model appropriate behavior with the ability to admit errors and apologize creates reciprocal respect for the parent and prevents resentment based on hypocrisy and double standards, say modeling proponents.[citation needed] Friends, parents, family, and neighbors can be role models.


At some point between the ages of four and six, reasoning becomes an effective discipline tool.[citation needed] A child may be told, for example, "If you play with the glass apple, it could fall, break and possibly cut you." This would be followed by showing the proper method of handling the object: Having the child sit on the floor, placing the object on the carpet, letting the child touch it for a short time, then putting it away. This not only satisfies the child's natural curiosity, it reduces frustrations, encourages child-parent communication and helps the child make better decisions in the future.[citation needed]

Other forms of discipline are significantly more effective when paired with a calm, clear, reasoned discussion about why the behavior was wrong. Children will be less likely to get in to further trouble if they understand the reasons why they should not be doing something.[citation needed] Children who are punished without further reasoning are more likely to repeat the offense and may simply make more of an effort not to get caught.[citation needed]

Internal discipline and democracy

Main articles: Discipline in Sudbury Model Democratic Schools and Sudbury Valley School

Sudbury model democratic schools, attended by children ages 4 to 19, claim that popularly-based authority can maintain order more effectively than dictatorial authority for governments and schools alike.

Furthermore they emphasize that much more important than the externals of order is the question of the sources of internal discipline: how does a person come to develop the inner strength and character that endows his life with order and coherence, an independent man appropriate to a free republic of co-equal citizens, capable of making decisions within a rational, self-consistent framework—a person treating and being treated with respect?

They affirm that the hallmark of the independent man is the ability to bear responsibility and since there is no way of teaching or training another person for self-sufficiency, there is no technique for obtaining or transmitting these traits. Hence, the only way a person becomes responsible for himself is for him to be responsible for himself, with no reservation or qualifications. Thence the need to permit children, at home and school, freedom of choice, freedom of action, and freedom to bear the results of action—the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility.[23][24][25]


Some parents feel that positive parenting and non-punitive discipline is too permissive and will lead to unruly and disrespectful children. They also argue that there is no recourse for parents of misbehaving children to effectively control their misbehavior. Deliberate misbehavior, they say, must be firmly punished to prevent its recurrence.[citation needed]

Proponents of non-punitive discipline argue that children who misbehave often do it not out of malice, but out of ignorance, boredom or frustration, and simply need to be taught, listened to, or redirected. They argue that a close and loving relationship is vital and if there is such a relationship, the child will want to please the parent and will better accept rules and listen to reason. They also feel that punishments and smacks weaken the relationship which will lead to more problem behavior.[citation needed]

See also


  1. Papalia, D. E.; Wendkos-Olds, S.; Duskin-Feldman, R. (2006). A Child's World: Infancy Through Adolescence (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. "Encouraging better behavior - A practical guide to positive parenting.". National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, United Kingdom. 2003. Retrieved 25 March 2008.[dead link]
  3. Pollock, Linda A. (1983). "5". Forgotten children: parent-child relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521250099.
  4. "Eight Misconceptions About Spanking". Learn The Bible. Retrieved 19 September 2009.
  5. Hanawalt, Barbara (1986). The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England. Oxford University Press. p. 182.
  6. "The Medieval Child, Part 4: The Playful Years". Retrieved 21 September 2009.
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society - Discipline". Retrieved 21 September 2009.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Dobson, James (1977). Dare to Discipline. Bantam Books. ISBN 0553228412.
  9. Wright, Susan (19 June 1985). "Parents and Experts Split on Spanking". The New York Times: p. C9.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Sullivan, Tom (5 October 2009). "In 30 years without spanking, are Swedish children better behaved?". The Christian Science Monitor (Boston).
  11. "Reported assaults on children up to six years of age increased by 23 percent to slightly more than 1,900 offences in 2008. The number of reported assault offences against children aged between seven and fourteen (almost 8,550 offences) increased by six percent by comparison with the figure for the previous year. The number of reported assault offences against both children and adults has increased since 1975 and today lies at a level that is nearly four times that of the 1975 figure." Reported Offences, Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, July 2009.
  12. Straus M.A. et al, "Spanking by Parents and Subsequent Antisocial Behaviour by Children", in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 1997; 151:761-767.
  13. Brezina, T. "Teenage violence toward parents as an adaptation to family strain: Evidence from a national survey of male adolescents", in Youth & Society 1999; 30:416-444.
  14. Simons, R.L. et al, "Socialization in the family of origin and male dating violence: A protective study", in Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1998; 60:467-78.
  15. Maccoby, E.E., & Martin, J.A. (1983). "Socialization in the context of the family: Parent-child interaction", in P.H. Mussen (ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology (4th ed.), vol. 4: Socialization, personality, and social development, edited by E.M. Heatherington, 1-101. New York: Wiley.
  16. Millichamp, Jane; Martin J & Langley J (2006). "On the receiving end: young adults describe their parents’ use of physical punishment and other disciplinary measures during childhood". The New Zealand Medical Journal 119 (1228): U1818. PMID 16462926.
  17. Toner, Ignatius J. (1986). "Punitive and non-punitive discipline and subsequent rule-following in young children". Child and Youth Care Forum 15 (1): 27–37. doi:10.1007/BF01118991.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Markham, Dr. Laura. "How to Use Positive Discipline". Retrieved 28 October 2009.
  19. "Non-punitive discipline". Inside Out Counselling. Retrieved 28 October 2009.
  20. "Positive discipline". 20 May 2008. Retrieved 28 October 2009.
  21. 21.0 21.1 "The Nanny Show and you". Parenting and Child Health Services South Australia. Retrieved 1 November 2009.
  22. "How can I discipline my children?". London: BBC. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
  23. The Crisis in American Education — An Analysis and a Proposal, The Sudbury Valley School (1970), Law and Order: Foundations of Discipline (pg. 49-55). Accessed January 10, 2010.
  24. Greenberg, D. (1987) The Sudbury Valley School Experience Back to Basics. Accessed January 10, 2010.
  25. Greenberg, D (1987), Child Rearing. Accessed January 10, 2010.

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