Deciding to Spare the Rod


Imagine if someone with authority said to you that you could not use corporal punishment to discipline your children. Stop and would you handle it?

Would it cause dramatic changes in the way you discipline your kids? Would you go into a panic? Would you give up disciplining all together?

Eliminating corporal punishment means more than forgoing bottom spanking. It includes a slap on the wrist, the smack on the face and any other body parts that may be struck.

Numerous studies have revealed that if we were raised with corporal punishment we will most likely raise our children the same way. What we know about being parents generally comes from the parents that raised us.

Some of you may be asking at this point, so what's really wrong with a swat on the bottom? It's fast, effective and has nothing to do with child abuse. However, very few people can say with confidence that they have never hit their kids just a little harder than they intended. It's possible for well intentioned loving parents to get angry enough with their children to use spanking as a means of releasing their own anger. Although these parents are well aware that the purpose of discipline is to teach, when corporal punishment is used, the danger of using and abusing children is greater.

Most parents will agree that children learn a great deal through imitation, especially when they see their children dress up in their clothes, repeat familiar phrases or even pantomime cigarette smoking. When mom or dad spanks little Tommy they are using hitting as a form of communication. They are in fact teaching him through imitation to communicate with his hands (hitting) instead of with words.

When our children see us become so angry with them that we strike them, we not only lose sight of why we are disciplining them, but we show them that it is an appropriate way to deal with anger.

So where does that leave our imaginary situation where corporal punishment is not permitted? In order to teach our children right from wrong we know that discipline has an important place in rearing a child. The following case studies offer alternatives for parents who would like to, or are considering dropping corporal punishment from their lives.

Time-out (For you)

You walk into your bedroom and find red nail polish splattered all over your recently purchased white cashmere sweater. Needless to say you are quite upset and can feel a rush of adrenaline through your body commanding you to act immediately. This is probably not the best time to discipline your children. Give yourself time to deal with your own anger; take deep breaths, a hot bath, dust the house. The point is to deal with your own anger first so you don't risk taking it out on your children. The you can begin to think about how it happened. Was it an accident, a deliberate cry for attention or are your children mad at you?

Consider the possibilities. After you are calm and have a reasonably open mind call for your children. Having taken some "time-out" to deal with your own emotions you will be better equipped to deal effectively with the situation. Your children won't be exposed to an irrational role model and most of all you will be capable of choosing the most appropriate form of discipline or simply finding out if something is bothering them.

Time-out (For them)

Four year old Lisa proceeds to throw a temper tantrum everytime you tell her "no". It doesn't matter whether you're at the supermarket or a friends house; she kicks and screams until she eventually wears you down. Four year old Lisa has learned how to push your buttons. Fortunately, it's not too late. Children who throw temper tantrums invariably want and receive attention. Whether the parent ends up consoling or yelling, the child receives attention for her negative behavior. This in turn reinforces her belief that temper tantrums gain your attention.

Lisa's parent might try designating a place in the house where she can express her tantrum. Everytime she is getting ready to have one, tell her you recognize her right to express her emotions (to be angry) and take her out of the environment and into a "Temper tantrum zone." Stay with her without giving her attention. Read a magazine with one eye and watch her with the other (you want to prevent or intervene if she begins to hurt herself).

Temper tantrum zones can also be found outside the home. For example, if the tantrum begins in the grocery store, ask an employee to watch your cart while you take the child outside. Again watch her and listen to her but don't give her any direct attention. When she has calmed down is the time to give her a treat like a box of Animal Crackers. Giving them to her during the tantrum again only reinforces the negative behavior.

A method for preventing tantrums in public places before they become a problem involves the use of "tickets". Before making your next trip to the store, cut three circles or squares out of cardboard or heavy paper for each child. Decorate them with stars, sparkles and a smiling face.

Before giving the children the tickets tell them the rules you want them to follow (as simply as possible) while you are in the store. When handing over the tickets to them, let them know that every time they break a rule you're going to take a ticket away. Tell them they must have at least one ticket left if they want to play outside when you get home. If they lose all three tickets they will stay inside. For they child who is extra good and doesn't lose a ticket, surprise her with an ice cream cone or something you know she likes.

When you use time-out to discipline children you are taking negative attention away. That is, you are not spanking or yelling. When attention is taken away however, it needs to be replaced somewhere else. Lisa's parents might try going out of their way to give her attention for all the good things she does; thanking her because she was quiet while you were on the telephone or telling her what a great job she did putting on her own socks and shoes. If she's getting enough positive attention she won't need to seek it in a negative way.

Taking Away a Privilege (vs. a Right)

The first time your six year old son Mark drew a masterpiece on the kitchen wall you thought it was so cute that you signed and dated it. After a few attempts to get him to use paper, you decide that it's time to rid him of this bad habit.

After Mark's parents explained to him and he understood that writing on the walls is a no-no, and he continued to do it, taking away the privilege of using crayons will help to teach him why it is wrong. Explaining to the child why the crayons are being taken away and for how long demands a lot more from the parent than a swat on the bottom. In the long run however, the child will learn that if he wants to keep his crayons the walls are not for scribbling.

It is important here to discern between a right and a privilege. Basic needs such as shelter, food, clothes and sleep are rights. It is our responsibility as parents to care for the needs of our children and not withhold the things that sustain them.

Sending Mark to bed without any dinner when he is hungry is depriving him of a basic right; the need to eat. Privileges, on the other hand are the desserts after the meal. A trip to the ice cream parlor, watching a cartoon show on television or having a set of crayons are all fun but not essential to his daily growth.

When Mark drew on the walls it would not have made sense to discipline him by not letting him play with his friends that afternoon or taking away his television privileges for a day or two.

The punishment must make sense if the child is to learn from it. Taking away Mark's crayons for doodling on the walls will cause him to think about how he must act if he wants to use his crayons. An important point to remember when using this method of discipline is that young children generally have very short memories. When a privilege is taken away from them for two or three days they may forget about the punishment the second day. It's the parents job to remind the child (as many times as necessary) why he has lost the privilege and for how long. With young children three days is a fairly long time and should be used as a guideline.

Not giving in on the second day of a three day punishment is the key to using this method successfully. It's imperative to let them know that the terms of the punishment stand (no matter how hard they try to talk you out of it) while continuously showing your love for them.

Additional Chores

Seven year old Jimmy has broken several items around the house probably due to a combination of carelessness, inattentiveness and roughhousing. This time he has broken a favorite vase of yours. After you have dealt with your anger and let him know you are upset at what he did, to discipline him by having him help with the vacuuming and dusting might not help you, but it might change his behavior. Jimmy's carelessness could be a sign that he doesn't feel important to the household or family. It could be this child's way of communicating that he needs more attention.

As with taking away privileges this method is demanding on both the the parent and child. It requires reminding the child how long, why and what the punishment is. It also requires the parent to let the child do these extra chores which may or may not be helpful.

In this case to discipline by adding chores is a double edged sword. On one hand tour teaching Jimmy through discipline that breaking things is not appropriate behavior and on the other hand your making him feel more a part of the household by giving him more to do. In addition, if the chores you add involve parent - child interaction, like helping with dinner or folding laundry, you're also spending more time with him and giving him the attention he was asking for.

Energy Releasing Activity

You've noticed that after dinner your children begin yelling, fighting and eventually saying no to bedtime. They may have left over energy which they need to release.

Sometimes children get so wound up from either too much or too little activity that an 8:00 p.m. bedtime seems impossible. Pent up energy can cause the normally obedient child to find trouble.

In this case the parent might try having the children run laps in the backyard, do jumping jacks or other calisthenics, dance fast to music or perform any other non-destructive but physically demanding activity. The key to this method is to divert the children immediately from the negative behavior while giving them a positive way to release their energy.


Nine year old Bob ate an entire batch of chocolate chip cookies after you had told him he could only have a couple. Now Bob has a stomachache.

Sometimes with an older child the most appropriate way to discipline is simply to talk it out. If your child is punishing himself for his wrongdoing, all you may need to do is calmly discuss the situation. Bob's stomachache is probably enough punishment for disobeying you. By reasoning with him you explain the cause and effect relationship between his disobeying you and why he's not feeling good.

With this methods and all methods of discipline discussed above, talking with your child about the wrongdoing and the discipline will help you both assess what the child has learned from it.

All the corporal free methods of discipline discussed share the same guidelines in working effectively. First the discipline (if there is one) should be decided on and then begun immediately. That is, telling a child "If you do that one more time..." only invites her to do it again.

Second, following through with discipline not only shows a child that you are serious about changing her behavior but also causes the child to think and learn from it. No child will take discipline seriously if she knows she can usually talk the parent out of it.

Consistency is the third guideline. This entails using similar discipline for similar transgressions. This will actually make decisions about discipline easier for the parent since future punishment is based on past discipline. It will also give the child a clearer understanding of what behaviors are expected out of him.

The final guideline is having the punishment make sense. As discussed earlier, the punishment should be designed so the child learns from it.

To discipline without hitting is easier for both parent and child if corporal punishment was never used at all. However it is possible to effectively discipline without hitting even if corporal punishment was the only method used previously.

By persevering in your discipline and using a combination of the alternative suggested in this article parents can become better role models for their children by teaching them how to handle their own anger. The transition from corporal to corporal free discipline may take time and patience, but will, in the long run, make better communicators out of the entire family.

INCAF Certified Instructors teach the Redirecting Children's Behavior course year-round at schools, churches, and community centers throughout the United States and the world. If you or your organization are interested in scheduling a class, talk, or training session, you can contact your local certified Instructor, fill out our handy on-line Information Request Form, or call toll free (800) 277-6651.

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