“When you screech like that while daddy is driving it scares us, and could cause an accident. Does that make sense?”
My two-year-old nods her head and goes back to playing a game with her sister as my husband cruises down the highway. Not two minutes later a scream cuts through the air.
“Ella!” I exclaim.
After giving each other frustrated glances, my husband looks at me. “She’s only two,” he says, and we nod. There’s not much you can do about two.
Parenting today is harder work than ever, and nowhere is that more true than when it comes to discipline. Science has shown that physical discipline and yelling can have negative impacts on kids, so most parents instead use reason, logic, and natural consequences, hoping to talk their kids into good behavior. But now, a new study from the University of Michigan shows that positive discipline isn’t so great either.
“Positive discipline doesn’t always seem to have all that many positive benefits,” said Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, professor of social work and lead author.
The study found that so-called positive discipline approaches also had negative impacts on kids. Taking away privileges (my personal favorite discipline) was associated with kids not getting along with other children, more aggression and more distraction; verbal reasoning was associated with aggression and distraction.
All of this is incredibly frustrating for parents like me who are just trying to do their best to discipline their kids in a way that will make them understand consequences without having a negative impact. We know we shouldn’t hit and shouldn’t yell, but now even talking to kids can be harmful?
So many times my husband has said to me, “What are we going to do about Ella?” Her yelling, her instance on waking up the whole house at 6 a.m., her toddler whining. It can all be overwhelming. But we’ve also realized that discipline isn’t going to make a huge difference. Some of these things are just par for the course during the terrible twos. The best we can do is just ride through, focusing on the good times more than the frustrating ones.
That’s what Grogan-Kaylor believes is best too. While there might be no right answer for disciplining kids, the way that parents interact with kids every day can have a big impact on behavior and social abilities.
“It’s more likely that the long-term investments that parents make in children, such as spending time with them, letting them know they are loved and listening to them, have more positive effects than nonviolent discipline,” he said.
Grogan-Kaylor says that having structure, routines and good communication skills can help keep kids’ behavior on track. When you need to discipline, he says it’s important to focus on age-appropriate responses. So, while I might be able to explain road safety and screeching to my six-year-old, it’s probably not going to work for her two-year-old sister.
“Verbal reasoning may have negative effects on children if it is not employed in a way that is developmentally appropriate for the child to understand why their behavior is inappropriate,” Grogan-Kaylor said.
Likewise, taking away privileges has to be done in an age-appropriate way that the child can understand and respond to.
Despite the hundreds of parenting books that promise to teach effective disciplinary strategies, science shows there’s not just one right answer. That means that mamas and dads are left to figure out what type of discipline works in their families — and sometimes, just waiting for certain stages of parenting to pass.
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