Discipline: Advice and Evidence
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s an excerpt on discipline (plus academic references) from Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.
If parents want a happier life, they need to rethink the justification for discipline. The welfare of the child is one legitimate goal. If your toddler runs into the street, zero-tolerance really is for his own good. But the child’s welfare is only the beginning. Another legitimate function of discipline is to keep the child from abusing the people around him – and no one is more susceptible to a child’s abuse than his own parents. Your kid knows where you live. You’re stuck with him, and he knows it. He also knows that you love him, so you’re inclined to forgive him his trespasses. Armed with these advantages, your child can make your life awful – unless you stand up for yourself.
The smart adjustment to make is just the wisdom of the ages: Clarity, Consistency, and Consequences. Adopt firm rules, clearly explain the penalties for breaking the rules, and impose promised penalties to the letter. If your child punches or kicks you, you’ve got to tell your child that this is against the rules, and that the punishment for transgression is, say, one day without television. Every time your child breaks the rule, harden your heart and impose the punishment. Clear, consistent punishment isn’t foolproof, and some kids are tougher to crack than others, but it beats being a punching bag.
If you’re skeptical of the wisdom of the ages, there is solid experimental evidence in its favor. When parents ask psychologists to help control their children’s disobedience, tantrums, and aggression, psychologists often respond by training the parents.They call it “behavioral parent training,” but it’s Clarity, Consistency, and Consequences by another name.[i] Researchers have run dozens of experiments to see whether behavioral parent training actually works. It does. Suppose you have a list of parents who want help with their problem children. You randomly train some, and leave the rest on a waiting list. Experiments typically find that the average child of the trained parents behaves better than 80% of the children of the parents on the wait list. [ii] The main weakness of behavioral parent therapy is parental backsliding: Once parents tire of Clarity, Consistency, and Consequences, their kids go back to their old tricks.[iii] Discipline is like dieting: It works when tried.
When you’re trying to improve your kid’s behavior, other authorities – teachers, grandparents, nannies, and so on – often frustrate you by undermining your rules. What good is it to practice the Three C’s if no one else does? Selfishly speaking: Plenty of good. Kids quickly discover that different people have different rules. If the typical teenager treated his friends the way he treats his parents, he wouldn’t have any friends. A central criticism of behavioral parent therapy is that it “only” improves children’s behavior in the home.[iv] But an optimist would draw a different lesson: Parental discipline is enough to make children treat their parents decently. If other authorities in your child’s life have lower standards, that’s largely their problem.
[i] “They call it “behavioral parent training…” See Anne Shaffer et al, “The Past, Present, and Future of Behavioral Parent Training: Interventions for Child and Adolescent Problem Behavior.” Behavioral Analyst Today 2001; Michelle Wierson and Rex Forehand, “Parent Behavioral Training for Child Noncompliance: Rationale, Concepts, and Effectiveness.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 1994; and Anthony
Graziano and David Diament, “Parent Behavioral Training: An Examination of the Paradigm.” Behavioral Modification 1992.
[ii] “Experiments typically find that the average child of the trained parents behaves better than 80% of the children of the parents on the wait list.” Wendy Serketish and Jean Dumas, “The Effectiveness of Behavioral Parent Training to Modify Antisocial Behavior in Children.” Behavior Therapy 1996, p.178. See also Sheila Eyberg et al, “Evidence-Based Psychosocial Treatments for Children and Adolescents With Disruptive Behavior.” Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology 2008.
[iii] “The main weakness of behavioral parent therapy seems to be parental backsliding…” Shaffer et al, “The Past, Present, and Future of Behavioral Parent Training.”
[iv] ” A central criticism of behavioral parent therapy is that it ‘only’ improves children’s behavior in the home.” See e.g. Judith Harris, No Two Alike. W.W. Norton and Company 2006, pp.130-5.