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Disciplining Kids: What Parents Try and Why

Study Peeks Inside the Parent-Child Power Struggle
By
WebMD Health News

May 17, 2005 -- If TV's "Super Nanny" hears about the latest U.S. survey on child discipline, her eyebrows might shoot straight up to her hairline.

The survey of more than 1,500 parents in 27 states, Canada, and Puerto Rico gives a behind-closed-doors look at how parents discipline their kids. Methods ran the gamut from the matter-of-fact (removing privileges) to the chaotic (yelling) to the physical (spanking).

Parents said they most often used one or more of these strategies:

  • Time-outs: 42%
  • Removing privileges: 41%
  • Yelling: 13%
  • Spanking: 9%
  • Sending to bedroom: 27%

The survey was given to parents of kids aged 2-11 years before the children's "well child" doctor visits. The findings were announced in Washington at the Pediatric Academic Societies' annual meeting.

Too Old for Time-Out?

Punishments were often tailored to the child's age.

Time-outs and spanking were reported more often for disciplining little kids (aged 2-5). Older children were more likely to get privileges removed, be yelled at, or hear that classic line, "Go to your room!"

So what worked? The survey didn't go there. Instead, it showed that the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree when it comes to child discipline.

Like Parent, Like Child

Many parents are following in their parents' footsteps, says the survey.

Parents were asked to recall the discipline strategies their mothers and fathers used on them in childhood. Their answers mirrored their own methods. That is, parents tended to duplicate the type of child discipline that they had received from their own parents.

"The only form of parental discipline experienced in childhood that was not significantly associated with current choice of discipline was spanking," write the researchers, who included pediatrician Shari Barkin, MD, of Brenner Children's Hospital, part of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.

What's a Parent to Do?

Each child, age, family, and situation is different. The response that's needed when a misbehaving child is flirting with danger (such as playing "Superman" on the roof) might be different from when they're tap dancing on your last nerve without risking life and limb.

No one gives parents a foolproof "how-to" manual, but parenting classes, books, and counseling are widely available. Those resources may help parents make discipline decisions that protect the child and get the point across.

It's a skill that might test anyone's creativity, will, and stamina. Even the smoothest diplomat or the wisest judge could find it tough to strike the right balance on a parent's never-ending schedule.

But consider this. The survey showed that kids often grow up to practice the same discipline methods that were used on them. If you don't want your grandchildren to be governed by shouting, don't subject your children to it.

Pediatricians should also consider talking about parents' childhood discipline experiences when discussing discipline with families, say Barkin and colleagues.

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