Ask Dr. Bronwyn: The Risks of Being Strict
Q: What’s so wrong with being a strict parent and expecting my daughter Eloise to do what she’s told? I mean, my parents punished and spanked me and I got good grades and went to Harvard. —Crimson Dad
Dear Crimson Dad,
We all want our children to do what they’re told but beware: punishments, threats or spankings alone are not only risky but also ineffective.
Think about it. Do you want Eloise to behave only when there’s someone around to catch her being naughty? If your M.O. is to fall back on punishments and consequences, you’re going to miss out on teaching Eloise to make good decisions based on her own critical thinking skills rather than the probability of getting caught.
She’ll inevitably continue to push your buttons (although in different ways) as she gets older, and if your only tactic is to punish, you’ll be forced each time to come down with harder consequences and more yelling. Plus, Eloise will get better at taking her deviant behaviors underground to avoid getting caught. What about when there’s no one around to see her befriend a stranger on the Internet, vape at a party in the seventh grade or plagiarize a paper? Will she be able to make good decisions based on her own moral compass? Probably not.
A large body of research shows that parents who use rigidity and anger towards their children are more likely to raise disrespectful children who break the rules. Worse, these angry and rebellious children, feeling disconnected from their parents, are usually the ones who are most influenced by their peers and drawn to similarly disconnected and deviant friends. Look, I get it. Punishment for misbehavior often feels right. Despite how satisfying it feels, punishment alone is not helpful in changing Eloise’s behavior. In my 20 years of research and work with families, I’ve noticed that parents often unwittingly choose justice over effectiveness. If you threaten to take away the iPad, you’ll likely curb the behavior in the moment; however, the behaviors that you want to encourage, like listening or compliance, won’t develop just because you punished their opposites.
When disciplining your children the punishment does not always have to fit the crime. Many parents have a hard time accepting that a 30-second time-out will do when a child has done something like carelessly spill juice all over family letters that originated from Ellis Island. A “weak” response might feel like they’re letting their children get away with it; however, research shows that bad behaviors persist when parents are most focused on teaching their children lessons. Soon enough families are trapped in loops of punishments and yelling.
The key to getting rid of bad behavior is focusing on the behavior you wish to see in its place. For example, instead of threatening to take something away when she won’t eat her vegetables, notice and praise her for taking good care of her body and making healthy choices when she does eat them.
Think about how you potty-trained Eloise. When you decided you didn’t want her to use diapers anymore, you didn’t punish her every time she had an accident. Instead, you built up her use of the potty through modeling, reinforcements and praise. These are the things that change behavior.
Here are four tips for using punishment as a SUPPLEMENT to developing the positive behaviors you want to see.
1. Catch Eloise being good.
Don’t expect punishment or yelling alone to extinguish bad behavior unless you also build up the positive behavior you wish to see through praise. For example, “Eloise, I really appreciate that even though you didn’t want to put all the game pieces back in the box, you did it, and even put the game away. Now it will be ready and waiting the next time we want to play!”
2. If you use punishment at all, make sure it’s mild and brief.
The duration of the punishment has no impact on the elimination of the behavior. For example, there’s no need to forbid Eloise from ever having ice cream again. Losing dessert for one night will suffice as long as you’re building up the positive behavior at the same time.
3. Stop nagging.
The more you tell anyone to do anything the less likely she will be to do it. Stop repeating phrases like, “How many times do I have to tell you?!” If that’s all you’re doing, combined with punishments, you’re going to be stuck in an angry rut.
4. Avoid physical punishment.
It doesn’t develop positive behavior and will increase the risk of negative outcomes such as poor school achievement, attractiveness to deviant peers and antisocial behavior, to name a few.
5. Model the behavior you wish to see in Eloise.
Like all children, Eloise copies what you do. Take advantage of this tendency. When you lose your cool, it’s okay to say something like, “Sorry about that. I was frustrated and I didn’t do a good job of calming my body down before I talked to you.”
Finally, bear in mind that although “strict” parenting worked for you it might not for Eloise. Worse, it might strain your relationship with one another. Parenting isn’t a one-size fits all situation. When it comes to discipline, the old adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” is out of date and unhelpful. Instead, why don’t we say, "Minimize the rod and build up the child."
Bronwyn Becker Charlton, Ph.D. received her doctorate in Developmental Psychology from Columbia University and is currently on the faculty at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the Department of Pediatrics. She is also the co-founder of the seedlingsgroup.