How to Punish a Child

Discipline is a stern-sounding word; it smacks of the military, of the submission of one's will to that of another person. To parents of an earlier generation, the word was synonymous with punishment. These strict authoritarians, concerned with securing unquestioning obedience, felt they would spoil their children if they paid them too much attention or showed them excessive affection.

Today we know that warmth and love are necessary if children are to have full lives, and a better definition for discipline is learning how to behave. Our long-range aim is to teach our children to discipline themselves, to have self-control rather than to be blindly obedient to laws laid down by those who are bigger and stronger than they.

Good behavior is relative, of course. Standards are personal, and conduct and manners unacceptable in your family may be regarded as satisfactory in other families. And times change. You may not require exactly the same behavior of your child that your parents required of you, but you may insist on certain other attitudes and actions. As your child grows, he gradually absorbs the principles that form the basis of your value system.

Obviously, your child must mind you without question when learning early safety lessons. Self-discipline cannot be expected of a toddler, and your "No!" to running into the street or hitting a younger sibling must be obeyed instantly. Your child is learning, though, and with every similar experience, the lesson is reinforced, until it is he, instead of you, who takes responsibility for his actions.

Another example of beginning understanding of self-control might occur when you stop your three year old from throwing a ball in the house. Your aim is not to show the child who's boss or even to prevent balls from being thrown in the house. It is to teach the child to respect and protect property, and eventually your child learns this. With self-control, he not only refrains from throwing balls in the house, he also does not knock over lamps, bang on the furniture with a hammer, or carry on other destructive activities.

Small children need guidance more than punishment, but when your child is between 2 and 21/2 years of age, she begins to understand the difference between right and wrong, and you find yourself searching for a way to punish misbehavior fairly and effectively. The way you punish your child depends upon her age, both of your personalities, and, probably, the way you yourself were punished as a child. Your tender-hearted and adoring one year old will most likely wilt under even a cross look from you, while your defiant toddler's feelings seemingly can't be hurt by the most severe scolding. One two year old will respond positively to your quiet verbal correction; another might deliberately repeat an offense no matter what you say or do.

Try to remember, in the most trying of situations, your purpose in punishing your child is not to get even but to teach, and it is the act you dislike, not the child. Mete out punishment immediately (not leaving it until "Daddy gets home"), and follow it very shortly with evidence that you love your child.

A time-out is an effective punishment for children of almost any age, as suitable for an angry, overwrought toddler as for a rebellious preadolescent. The only difference is you settle your toddler into a little chair in the corner for a very short time -- perhaps two or three minutes -- and you isolate an older child for as long as it takes him to accept your requirements. For a young child who does not have a concept of time, it is a good idea to use an hourglass or kitchen timer with a moving hand so he can "see" the time passing. One of the best aspects about a time-out is it provides a cooling-off period for both child and parent.

Allowing logical consequences to follow misbehavior probably provides the fairest and most reasonable punishment. You'll make good use of logical consequences later, when your older child oversleeps and misses the bus-and walks to school. Or when he doesn't get chores done on time-and doesn't watch television. But even a child younger than three years of age can understand that if he rides a tricycle into the street, after being specifically warned not to, he cannot ride the tricycle at all for one whole day. Or if he uses a toy as a weapon, you will take the toy away. The logical consequence of hitting, biting, or kicking is separation from the playmate or adult whom the child has attacked.

Eventually, the question of corporal punishment arises: Should you or shouldn't you spank your child? Some parents believe a child should never be spanked, and spanking is more a vent for their own bad moods than a teaching tool. The lesson it does teach, they say, is that hitting is the way to solve problems. The one exception they are likely to make is the quick spank they give a toddler for running into the street or otherwise risking harm to himself or to others. But even then, does it just confuse your child that you spank him to ensure he doesn't hurt himself or others?

Do not ever shake a child or hit him about the head -- you risk brain damage and even death. A child's neck muscles are still weak; when the head snaps back, the brain hits the skull, and blood vessels stretch or break. A blood vessel in the eye may also be damaged, causing partial or total vision loss.

Finally, it is wise to instruct any and all caregivers that they must never physically discipline your child. This type of punishment, if used at all, is best and most safely administered by you.

  • Be sure your expectations are reasonable. It's easy for parents to expect too much from their children, especially from their first children. No one would expect a nine-month-old baby to show self-control about what goes into her mouth; a child that young obviously needs total and constant protection from the environment. But you may be tempted to treat your bright toddler, who walks well, understands what you say, and speaks in sentences, as a sort of miniature adult. You don't understand why she rebels and defiantly tests every limit you set. The truth is, nature is pushing this child to separate from you, to become independent, and the child is fulfilling that drive in the only ways she knows. Her defiance means she is growing up. For the time being, give as few commands as possible, offer two choices whenever you can, and use diplomacy instead of pressure to get the child to behave acceptably.
  • Reward good behavior, not misbehavior. Give a well-behaved child more attention than one who misbehaves. When your toddler pats the dog gently, reward with praise and a hug. When he throws a tantrum because you save the dog from mistreatment by letting it go outside, step over the screaming child and pay no attention. For a small child, love and praise are better than material rewards of food, toys, or money. Be careful, however, not to spoil a compliment, even to a toddler, by partially invalidating it -- congratulating your toddler on picking up toys, for example, and then pointing out they have not been arranged neatly on the shelves. Remember: The most thrilling compliment of all is the overheard one, especially when it is related to the child's other parent.
  • Don't overreact to misbehavior. It's easy to get into the habit of scolding and punishing with the same intensity for a minor offense as for a serious one to get your child's instant attention and obedience. But save your sharpest tone of voice for real emergencies and your most severe punishments for actions dangerous to your child or someone else.
  • Be brief, be clear. Keep your rules simple and repeat them often. Speak plainly in words of one syllable. Look into your child's eyes, and hold her hands as you give a command. Be sure not to make rules that can't be enforced because they're based on actions that can't be regimented or on emotions. You can't make a child sleep, for example, or force her to love someone. When your child breaks a rule, tell her briefly and succinctly what she has done wrong and why it was wrong. Holding your child's hands or touching her on the shoulder as you reprimand shows your love and may also get closer attention.

It's important to recognize that there are difficult, hyperactive children who would pose problems for any parent. Don't give up, and don't get frustrated. Take solace in the fact that difficult children are often unusually intelligent. Read about how to deal with a difficult child next.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.