When Kids Misbehave, 'Verbal Reasoning' Can Sometimes Backfire
Most parents know that child behavior experts recommend against spanking, but new research suggests that so-called "positive" discipline methods don't always work either.
For example, the common tactic of "verbal reasoning" with an unruly child "was associated with a mixed bag of outcomes, some positive and some negative," said study author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor. He's a professor of social work at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
"It seems to have a lot to do, as you might suspect, with affect [emotion] and context. You can deliver verbal reasoning in a blaming and shaming and angry way, and that's not going to be successful. But delivering in a loving and supportive way, that still seems to be successful," he explained.
So, what's a parent to do when kids misbehave?
Child psychologists have different theories.
Grogan-Kaylor suggests that the key is structure, open communication and developmentally appropriate removal of privileges. Another experienced child psychologist suggests it's practicing the behaviors that you want to see in your kids.
Grogan-Kaylor's team studied the issue by analyzing different forms of punishment for child behavior in a global sample that spanned 62 countries. The study included nearly 216,000 families, using data from the United Nations Children's Fund Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys.
In their study, the investigators expanded upon earlier research on negative discipline, and also took a more global look at the issue.
The findings confirmed that spanking was not associated with children getting along with others and also led to increased aggression and distraction.
As for verbal reasoning, the negative effects included increased aggression, likely in cases where parents used harsh tones and language, according to the study authors. A positive effect of verbal reasoning was that it promoted getting along with others.
The study also found that another discipline option, taking away privileges, led to higher levels of aggression and distraction.
It's not discipline at all that makes the biggest difference, Grogan-Kaylor said, but providing structure, communicating with your child and removing privileges in a developmentally appropriate way.
"I think it's these long-term supports of kids, creating this strong, loving attachment. There's actually a lot of robust research evidence around that," Grogan-Kaylor said.
"Telling children you love them, making it clear that you want to spend time with them, providing them structure, making it clear that you value their point of view and that you want to listen to them and you want to work with them, rather than simply telling them how to behave," he added.
Grogan-Kaylor said parents may ultimately need to make a decision about taking away some privileges for a developmentally appropriate amount of time for sibling fights. But, he added, "I'm a firm believer that engaging your kids in conversation before you get into family trouble, that makes a lot of difference."
Spotting your children being good and then praising them for it is very powerful, he noted.
The study was published recently in the International Journal of Behavioral Development.
Alan Kazdin's experience in child psychology has led him to an approach that doesn't focus on discipline.
"If you use corporal punishment, that's going to have horrible side effects. If you use time out, fewer side effects. If you take away privileges, even less. It doesn't matter. It doesn't teach the behaviors you want," said Kazdin, an emeritus professor of child psychology at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
Instead, he said, focus on practicing the behaviors you want before the behavior happens; for example, a tantrum. Kazdin suggests families have kids practice a "good tantrum," which might be one in which the child throws the fit but without hitting a family member. Then, praise the child effusively in this practice. And encourage practicing again, but without nagging. Also, notice when the kid has that "good tantrum" in real life.
Kazdin said it's like playing an instrument: The more you practice, the better you get at it.
"Practicing literally changes the brain. The key to this approach is not praise. It's not rewards. It's getting repeated practice and all of these parts that you might see as gimmicks, which are actually parts of research, are ways to getting them to practice again," Kazdin said.
This isn't to say you shouldn't reason with your child, but don't view it necessarily as a way to change behaviors, he added.
"One of the weakest ways of changing human behavior is reasoning. To make sure the message is clear, it's really important for parents to explain things and reason with their child," Kazdin said.
Reasoning with a child "teaches thinking. It teaches vocabulary. It teaches self-control. It teaches restraint. It teaches abstract reasoning," he said, but "it doesn't change behavior."
The American Academy of Pediatrics has tips for parents on discipline.
SOURCES: Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, PhD, professor, social work, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Alan Kazdin, PhD, research professor and Sterling Professor Emeritus of Psychology & Professor of Child Psychiatry (Emeritus), Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; International Journal of Behavioral Development, Jan. 13, 2021