Mom talking to young son It’s part of our job as parents to teach our children to act and talk in appropriate ways and to steer them away from bad behavior. But what’s the best way to do that so our children learn, over time, to behave responsibly, in ways that show respect and care for others?

Jason Lewis, PhD, a psychologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and Ariana Zahn, MA, a psychology extern, offer guidance on effective discipline strategies — and warnings about approaches that can be damaging.

Why spanking and shaming do not work

“Your goal in parenting is to strengthen the positive aspects of both your child’s behavior and the parent-child relationship,” says Dr. Lewis. “You want to increase ‘good’ behaviors and decrease ‘bad’ behaviors. Research shows that physical discipline, or corporal punishment, is not an effective strategy and has other long-term negative outcomes.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently updated its policy discouraging physical discipline, including spanking, and the use of demeaning, threatening or shaming language with children, citing these negative outcomes:

  • These kinds of discipline can damage the parent-child relationship and lead to escalating aggression on both sides.
  • By modeling aggressive behavior, these kinds of discipline can lead children to act in more aggressive ways with their peers, and as they grow up, with intimate partners and their own children.
  • Because corporal punishment often happens in moments of high stress, it increases the risk of injury to children, especially when the children are very young.
  • Research has shown a relationship between these kinds of discipline and higher rates of depression and other mental health problems later in life.
  • The negative outcomes for children who are spanked are similar to those for children who experience physical abuse.

How to use positive discipline

So what does work to encourage good behavior? Zahn and Dr. Lewis list the key elements of a positive approach to discipline:

  • Model self-control. Be calm during interactions with your children, your partner and others. Model ways to calm down when you are frustrated, angry or anxious. If you feel yourself losing control, take a parent time-out. Leave the room and engage in a calming coping strategy.
  • Give your child your affection and attention. Have focused one-on-one time with each child throughout the week. Make space for moments of attention and a lot of hugs throughout the day.
  • Set age-appropriate limits. Clearly explain your expectations to your child. Make sure your rules and limits are reasonable, given your child’s age and maturity.
  • Listen to and tune into your child. Think about what is causing a problem behavior. What is going on just before it occurs and how is your child feeling? Acknowledge your child’s feelings and help them find ways to deal with tough emotions. Let them know that it’s OK to be mad sometimes, but not to break things or hurt someone.
  • Catch your child doing something good. Praise your child often for specific good behavior and for positive effort. Your loving attention is the best reinforcer for good behavior.
  • Break the cycle of giving your attention only for bad behavior. Unless your child is at risk of injury or of hurting another child, it’s sometimes best to ignore them when they are behaving badly. Give your attention again as soon as the bad behavior stops. (The exception: A young child may need a close hug to calm down and regain self-control.)
  • Separate your child from the behavior. Let your child know you love them no matter what, but that you don’t love the bad behavior.
  • Practice distraction. Redirect your child’s behavior instead of simply trying to stop it. Watch how many times you are saying “no” or “don’t” during the day, and work on changing those statements to something positive: “Let’s go and . . .” or “Wouldn’t it be fun if . . .” Humor can be a wonderful tool for distraction and redirection.
  • Set appropriate consequences for bad behavior. Be clear, consistent and prompt in enforcing consequences, and be sure they are not overly punitive. You might need to put toys away if your child is throwing them, or give your child an extra chore to do. You might remove a privilege, like play time with a friend. The closer the consequence follows the misbehavior in time, the more likely your child will make the connection and adjust behavior in the future.
  • Call a time-out. Let your child know that one consequence of misbehavior can be a time-out — time spent sitting quietly in another part of the room or in a nearby room. Time-outs should come after you’ve given a warning, and they should be short. A minute for each year of a child’s age is a good rule of thumb. Be calm when you call a time-out, so your child sees it as a chance to calm down and start over, not as an angry battle with you.

Contributed by: Jason Lewis, PhD, and Ariana Zahn, MA