A response to The Atlantic- No Spanking… article

Discipline and PushmentIn the parent coaching work that I have done over the last 10 years, I would say that the most hotly debated topic within parenting is the concept of discipline. So, this week when The Atlantic published an article entitled, “No Spanking, No Time-Out, No Problems” by Olga Khazan, I found it to be out of step with what parenting and discipline is all about . Khazan concludes based on the work she conducting during her child abuse series, parents fall within three categories: 1.) those that do everything right or perfectly, 2.) those that have abusive tendency towards their children and lastly 3.)The bulk of parents are generally inconsistent in their parenting practices.

In dissecting this article, I find it flawed to suggest that there is even remotely a group of parents who parent perfectly, which makes me question whether this professional has substantial experience working directly, coaching, counseling or supporting parents, or if she has any children herself.  This questioning is not intended to be rude but rather to make the argument that parenting is hard work and challenging. Quite frankly anytime you attempt to build a relationship with any human being you are going to be faced with some sort of adversity. Therefore, the parenting process is riddled with highs and lows and before you have realized, you have either overreacted at the smallest of things or under-reacted (maybe that is why I think the person who invented the saying… hindsight is 20/20 had to have been a parent because that is just the nature of parenting).

What I would say, the problem with the concept of “punishment” is that it’s often used synonymous with discipline. The central element of parenting is appropriately  applying discipline while considering the individualized temperament styles of each child. For example, a parent could actively choose to use time-out as punishment mechanism when teaching about consequences however if this child  is one that enjoys being alone then this method may not be the most beneficial. However time-out may be an appropriate means to an end for a child who has an active temperament and is very social.

As a parent, we have find a way to foster structure, predictability and safety while accurately  nurturing and attuning to the needs of your child. Which putting it simply, according to Elite Daily, “Why Discipline is Essential to Your Character”, discipline brings stability and structure into a person’s life.

Overall, I am not here to argue for or against physical discipline or time-out, I do believe Khazan’s discussion with Alan Kazdin, who is the director of the Yale Parenting Center is limited in his understanding and assessment of the impact of parental discipline techniques such as spanking or the use of time out. Kazdin suggests the way a parent disciplines their child will ultimately influence how they interact and discipline their peers. Contrary this argument, there have been studies and research suggesting otherwise. In 2011, Time published “The First Real Time Study of Parents Spanking Their Kids.”. This study concludes that the bulk of children at one point or another have received some form of corporal punishment/discipline do not later victimize other children or become abusive and eventually become valued members of society.

So, what does this all have to do with this article… suggesting that parents use Applied Behavior Analysis Techniques such as positive reinforcement approaches which are commonly used with children diagnosed with Autism. ABA is often taught to teachers in classroom as way to reduce problematic behavior by helping children learn new skills. ABA focuses on positive reinforcement through a reward system to reinforce behavior. Kazdin contends that this is more beneficial because “because I said so” does not work.  However sometimes it is “just because I said so.” As adults, if our boss asked for a report by a certain date, we all can infer what would happen if we responded with “why” or “what am I going to get from you if I turn it in by that time.”  If the goal of parenthood is to get child beyond toddler/preschool thinking, then I ask why is a bad thing for parents to establish clear and predictable consequences when rules and standards are violated?

Therefore my question is… what will parents do once rewards are removed from the equation? The one day when dessert is not available for the child who sat calmly at the dinner table and ate all of her food (which they should). This reminds me of the time when my daughter was 18 months and we were working on potty training. We had friends who had previously gone through this process, so we were told about using “potty treats” to reinforce the potty training. Let me tell you, while we found this helpful at first in conditioning her to use the toilet what we quickly found was once the “potty treats” ran out, it was world war 10 in our house. We had to retrain her use the potty without the dependency on these treats.  Therefore when we were starting potty training our son we opted out of the positive reinforcement system of rewards often advocated by ABA.

So although this brief reflection may not be directly connected the process of discipline, the principle remains, establishing a precedent of getting children to learn right for wrong through a system of rewards by only using positive reinforcement will ultimately set these children up for failure.

Parenting is a difficult process and I have never met any parent personally or professionally who will opening report that they have done everything right. What these parents will say is its our responsibility to encourage and foster the development of great human beings and not a sense of entitlement and this is can only occur through the art of discipline.