The way we discipline our kids shapes their behavior as well as their sense of self-worth. But there are many different philosophies, so how do you decide which one works best for your family? To help you figure it out, we turned to seven child-rearing experts, representing a range of opinions, for their advice. You'll find plenty of options to choose from.
Cris Beam is a coauthor of the American Heart Association's Meals in Minutes cookbook.
Separating a child from whatever activity is going on when she misbehaves allows her the space she needs to think about what she's done. But is a time-out detrimental to a child's self-expression?
Ariel Gore: Time-outs shouldn't be viewed as punishment; they're a cooling-off period after your child has bitten or hit someone, or is just really wound up. They shouldn't last too long -- just one minute for every year of a child's age. And setting kids off by themselves is ideal; they need to be away from the center of activity.
Claire Lerner: If your goal is to help your child express her feelings, a time-out can teach her to be more repressive -- you're giving her the message that when she's angry, she has to be alone and put those feelings under the rug.
This doesn't mean you can't walk out of the room when your kid is in the throes of a tantrum. Before you leave, say, "I see you're having a hard time and you need to pull yourself back together. When you're ready, you can come to me." The key is to give your child the control.
Marianne Neifert, M.D.: There's a danger in overusing time-outs. They're not a jail sentence, but a gift to help your child control her feelings. If you give a 4-year-old a four-minute time-out, and after two minutes she says she's ready to come out, let her. Ask her if she wants to talk about her emotions, but if she doesn't, don't push. Just name some of the ones you saw: "It looked to me like you were pretty upset or angry."
Since time-outs are about impulse control, they're effective only if you enforce them right away. If your son pulls his sister's hair, he should go into a time-out immediately. Don't ever say, "When we get home, you have to have a time-out," because by the time you get there, he'll have forgotten the incident and just feel confused.
William Sears, M.D.: Time-outs are appropriate whenever a child's misbehaving, but they'll work better if you use different names for them. You can say "You need thinking time" or "You need Susie time."
The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy statement against this practice
. We all should spare the rod, but will a swat or two really hurt?
Dr. Neifert: If we continue as a society to condone spanking, some kids will get really hurt. Let's say that you can strike your child effectively and never lose control -- another parent who's more stressed out or doesn't have the support at home may not be able to do that. Spankings are also a confusing way to teach a child a lesson about aggressive behavior.
Gore: I think many of us have spanked our kids at some point. I think we're human and our kids need to know we're human -- but I do think it's something to apologize for.
John Rosemond, Ph.D. (from John Rosemond's Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children): A spanking is a spanking only if the following conditions are adhered to: The parent administers it with his or her hand only. The parent's hand makes contact with the child's rear end only. The hand strikes the rear no more than three times....
A spanking accompanied by a period of restriction or a brief reprimand will have a much greater positive effect than a spanking alone....The less parents spank, (though,) the more effective each spanking will be.
Lerner: Spanking may stop behavior instantaneously, but chances are the kid will do it again because he hasn't learned anything. If he's been drawing on the wall, has he learned what to do with a crayon? No. He's learned that when people are angry, they hit. And parents almost always spank in anger.
Do kids need well-defined rules before an incident occurs? Or should you impose one ("No biting," for instance) the moment they misbehave? What kinds of boundaries are appropriate, and how rigid should you be with little kids?
Martha Pieper, PH.D.: Health and safety rules are all that matter: You can't hurt anyone else, and you can't hurt yourself.
Dr. Neifert: Little kids are looking for consistent boundaries. They don't want too much liberty -- it's terrifying for a 2-year-old to think she's in control. They need physical boundaries, such as, "You can't cross the street by yourself or go into the baby's room when she naps." You can also set up rules that respect other people's rights -- you can't take toys or willfully damage someone else's things -- by the time your child is 2.
Lerner: Children aren't trying to be bad or to drive you crazy; they're usually just trying to explore. You always need to ask yourself, What is my child trying to learn, and how can I help her to do it in an acceptable way?
When a baby spills her drink, she's probably just trying to see what will happen when she drops it on the floor. So it's up to you to set limits. Just say, "You can't do your spilling here," and put her in the bathtub -- along with plastic bowls, spoons, and water -- where she can make a mess.
With a toddler, you can say things like "No hitting" to reinforce concepts. But it isn't until kids can logically connect events, when they are about 3, that they're developmentally able to understand limits. If your child hits a bat against a wall, you can say the rule is, "No bats in the house." Then take it away. The next time it is about to happen, she'll more likely be motivated to stop the action herself.
Dr. Sears: With little ones, distraction is an easier way to get the job done: "You may not play with a knife, but here's something else to play with." It's just common sense.
No matter what limits you establish, kids will test them. But how much back-and-forth is enough? And is it ever a good idea to allow children to determine their punishment?
Perri Klass, M.D.: If you fight over everything, or think that you must win every tug-of-war for the child's own good, it takes all the fun out of having kids. Is there a reason you have to win the you-can't-go-barefoot-in-the-snow battle? Probably yes. But do you also have to win the you-can't-wear-the-same-shirt-two-days-in-a-row battle? Maybe not.
Even by age 2, a child can understand that there are things (like health and safety) that matter more to you, and things that matter a whole lot more to him. You can explain it simply by saying, "This is a choice," or "This is not a choice."
Dr. Sears: Explain the reason behind your actions to your child, but don't negotiate with him the way you would with a coworker; there's a hierarchy here. You can say, "I'm the parent and you're the child, and there's going to be a consequence so this doesn't happen again." Just remember: Kids expect you to be fair.
Gore: There are three areas in which I'm not willing to negotiate: bedtime, mealtime, and when it's time for homework. But it took me a while to learn to not ask things as a question if I didn't mean them that way. There's a difference between "Do you want dinner?" and "It's dinnertime."
Rosemond (from Parent Power!): The plain truth is, sometimes the most honest, straightforward, and authoritative (not to be confused with authoritarian) reason for making a decision or giving an instruction is, "Because I said so."
A furious adult can be pretty overwhelming. When our children make us mad, should we let them know it?
Pieper: Anger isn't an effective response -- it makes children feel that they're lovable one moment, then not lovable the next. If you feel angry, it helps to say to yourself, "Right now I'd like to kill this kid, but I'm going to try and keep a lid on it because it's not her fault. It's obviously my issue."
Dr. Klass: The idea that when you're angry you should somehow cover your anger and simply be judicial is frightening to me. I think that when you're upset or frustrated, you should let your child see that. Of course, keep in mind that the younger she is, the more frightening your anger is. So if you've upset your child too much, apologize.
Dr. Sears: Anger is a normal emotion. A child needs to know that what she did made you angry -- but she also expects you to stay in control. You can show the disapproval on your face. If you begin to yell, though, tell your child you're mad and walk away. Come back later when you've regained control.
The gist of this strategy: The punishment should fit the crime. If your preschooler deliberately tracks mud in the house, he should help you clean it up. But does it work?
Pieper: Many parents think logical consequences teach children a lesson: If your kid refuses to put on his snow boots, then he can't play when you're outside. I say, be prepared and bring the snow boots along with you.
If your child shoves his friend out of the way so he can have a toy, you can say, "You can't push. Let's try and find something else you'd like to do." Offering an alternative shows kids they can't always get what they want, but they can always have a relationship with you. This is what they value most anyway.
The more you can regulate a child's behavior in a positive way, the more he'll imitate you.
Dr. Neifert: Besides teaching a child that life is logical, consequences remind him that his actions determine the outcome. You can reinforce this by giving him choices whenever possible. Say things like, "Do you want to put your toys away now, or should I put them in the off-limits basket, where you can't play with them until tomorrow?"
Just don't give warnings you can't carry out. If your kids are bickering at the airport and waiting to board the plane, don't say, "If you don't stop, we won't go see Grandma."
Dr. Sears: Life has consequences: What happens when you break the speed limit? The policeman doesn't have a nice little chat with you. He gives you a ticket. Discipline is about giving your kids guidelines so they can control themselves, about giving them the tools to succeed in the real world.
Lerner: If your child draws on the walls, you can tell him the crayons have to go away, but then you should give him a second chance: After 15 minutes or so, give the crayons back, and follow up with positive reinforcement for his not drawing on the wall this time. If you praise kids for doing the right thing, they'll end up with a feeling of mastery.