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Effective strategies for parents

February 19, 2007|Ben Harder

Parents can break their reliance on corporal punishment, experts say, by learning to encourage good behavior and suppressing counterproductive reactions to misbehavior.

"Most parents will say, 'I would like to avoid spanking, but I just don't know what to do,' " says pediatrician Michael Regalado of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A.

Psychologists and pediatricians recommend:

For starters, don't act in anger. Parents who find themselves uttering phrases like "Let this be a lesson to you" should do their moral coaching when everyone has had time to calm down, says Yale University professor of psychology Alan Kazdin.

"Discipline means to teach, not to punish," says Shari Barkin, a Vanderbilt pediatrician.

Use timeout or removal of privileges to show displeasure with a child's actions. Either method is more effective than spanking for reducing undesired behavior, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The child may act out more in the short run, but these strategies are highly effective if used consistently.

Isolating a child in her room for 10 minutes is enough to make your point, while taking away her bike for weeks at a time is overkill, Kazdin says.

Tailor consequences to fit the situation. If a child marks the wall with crayons, Barkin says, tell him to draw on paper. If he continues to draw on the wall, take away the crayons. "If I took television away in that case, it wouldn't connect," she says. "Be consistent, have logical consequences, and use swift follow-up."

Communicate both disapproval and approval. "A very mild punishment -- a look, a small reprimand -- works wonderfully well, if the behaviors you want to reinforce are being praised," Kazdin says. If you rebuke kids for having a fight with each other, commend them whenever they're getting along, he says.

Reinforce positive behavior. Rather than aiming to catch and punish a child when he or she is bad, "catch your child being good, and praise it," Kazdin says. "A reward doesn't have to mean a gift," Barkin says. "It can be something as simple as physical affection or kind words ... children thrive on their parents' attention."

Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State, who defends the use of spanking under certain conditions, concurs. "It's better for parents to do everything they can in terms of teaching positive behavior before misbehavior occurs," he says. "The more parents do that, the less they'll need spanking."

-- Ben Harder

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