The Single Best Way to Discipline Kids Is to Not Have a Single Way to Discipline Kids

When your kids act out, you might find yourself wondering what the single best possible disciplinary strategy to nip their behavior in the bud might be. But as it turns out, the single best disciplinary strategy might actually be to not limit yourself to a single strategy at all.


New research from Oklahoma State University suggests that parents who continually rely on one specific method of behavior management might actually be shooting themselves in the disciplinary foot. No two children are alike, of course; and even different instances of misbehavior from one particular child can have very different causes and consequences. So, the researchers say, a "one size fits all" approach is actually more of a "one size fits none" situation.

The researchers talked to more than 100 mothers about five times they'd had to discipline their children, what they had done in response, and how well that response worked. What they found was that the effectiveness of a behavior management strategy depended a lot on what the child had been doing in a first place. Trying to reason with a child who was hitting was about as effective as you might expect (not very), while reasoning with a child who was whiny or trying to negotiate an extra snack or a later bedtime worked fairly well. On the other hand, putting a whiny child in time-out just gets you a few more minutes of whininess -- whereas timeouts were an effective way to deal with a toddler who's throwing punches.

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Another thing they figured out was that using the same technique over and over again is a good way for it to stop working. When toddlers know exactly what to expect from you in response, it's a pretty easy cost-benefit analysis for their tiny brains to make. "Two minutes in time-out for climbing on top of the counter to reach the cookie jar? Yeah, I'll risk it." But changing things up can help keep disciplinary strategies effective in the long run.

The good news is that this information might be able to help you make more informed choices in how you discipline your kids! The bad news is that now as parents we have to be creative and thoughtful when disciplining the little monsters ... sometimes it's easier to just dump a kid in the playpen for two minutes of time-out than it is to run through a mental pros-and-cons list of appropriate consequences.


Image via © Ned Frisk Photography/Corbis

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