Tag Archives: parenting

“Shall We Dance?” How Parents Can Work Together to Teach Kids About Race

Family dancing together


This is the fifth in a series of blog posts that the American Psychological Association (APA) will publish regarding racial/ethnic socialization practices, programs, and approaches. APA is putting together a clearinghouse of resources to help parents/caregivers to protect youth of color and themselves from the psychological damage of discrimination and racism. For more information regarding APA’s new initiative and to provide feedback as we continue to engage in this series, please visit: www.apa.org/pi/res


By Shawn C. T. Johnson, PhD (Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania)




In the world of reality contest shows, are any more fun than those that center around dancing? On shows such as Dancing with the Stars (above), individuals with varying levels of talent pair up with others—sometimes as novice, sometimes advanced—to practice and eventually perform a set routine.  If you have ever watched these shows, you can appreciate the time and effort it takes to get the count right, keep rhythm etc.


As a racial-ethnic socialization (RES) scholar, watching these shows has also gotten me to think about another dance that goes on (and is often unnoticed) for many parents: working together to teach their child how to navigate a racialized world. Unlike faulty steps meaning the difference between staying on a show and going home, the stakes for effectively providing your child with affection, protection, and correction, as Dr. Howard Stevenson describes it, are much higher. Yet, while we often consider racial socialization one of the most critical parenting practices, there is not much that exists to help parents think through how their individual and collective skills, what they bring to the dance, can have important consequences for safeguarding their children physically, mentally, and emotionally.


So You Think You Can Dance?


Individually, it may be important for each parent to consider their styles and comfort around talking to their children about race. For example, one parent’s experiences with racial discrimination may make them more or less committed to preparing their children for potentially similar experiences. For another parent, they may still be carrying forward the messages that they were taught about race as a child, and these messages may inform how they plan to talk about race. Even experiences such as where parents’ grew up can impact how they think about race and the importance of teaching lessons to their children. So it is crucial to ask your co-parenting partner to share thoughts and feelings on race and RES.


It Takes Two…


giphy (1)


In addition to what each parent brings to the dance floor independently, how well parents work together impacts how successfully they can teach their children about race. Have you ever seen two capable dancers stumble through a routine? Oftentimes it has to do with a lack of communication. The most seamless routines are often found when communication is open and frequent. For RES, like dancing, this can mean using verbal or non-verbal means to let your partner know where you are going.


Another element of effectively navigating RES may center on discussions of role-taking or leads. Have you discussed who might be the one to teach your child what to do if they get stopped by the police, or is called a racial slur?


No Parking on The Dance Floor




Even once parents are able to work together to get into a groove that includes mutual understanding and open communication, it is important to also take a look at what is going on in you and your child’s world. Very skilled dancers may still find it difficult to be successful on a dance floor that is too crowded, and communication may become difficult if the music is too loud. Does the neighborhood or school your child inhabits make having these conversations more critical? How do the current political climate and exposure to social media change the ways in which your maneuver? How do other important people—grandparents, stepparents, and fictive kin— fit in with how we are teaching our children about race?


While RES unfortunately does not come with an instructional dance guide, and there may not be just the “right moves”, working together to teach your children about race is achievable. Share experiences and perspectives on race; support one another in co-creating an approach to talking about race; and accommodate one another when disagreements about how to proceed inevitably arise.


So tonight, perhaps after watching the latest episode of DWTS, you can pull up APA’s RESilience Parent Tip Tool, and ask your co-parent, “Can we have this dance?”




Shawn C. T. Jones, PhD, is a National Science Foundation SBE Postdoctoral Fellow in the Human Development and Quantitative Methods division at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Currently, Shawn works with Dr. Howard Stevenson in the Racial Empowerment Collaborative (REC), which centers on applied research to promote racial literacy and empower families as a means of reducing the deleterious impact of race-related stress. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology with a Child and Family emphasis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was a Child Clinical Psychology Pre-doctoral intern at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. During his time at UNC, Shawn was both a Ford Foundation Predoctoral and Dissertation Fellow. Shawn also holds a Master of Health Science in Mental from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health (2010) and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from Duke University (2008).

Dr. Jones endeavors to impact the psychosocial wellbeing of Black youth and their families by: a) exploring mechanisms undergirding culturally-relevant protective and promotive factors; b) translating basic research into interventions that harness the unique strengths of the Black experience; and c) disseminating this research to be consumed, critiqued and enhanced by the communities the work intends to serve. Clinically, Dr. Jones is committed to the provision of culturally-informed child, couple and family therapy and assessment. Finally, Dr. Jones is passionate about eliminating racial health disparities, particularly those related to mental health services, which he sees as obtainable through stigma-reduction and mental health literacy interventions.

Filed under: Children and Youth, Culture, Ethnicity and Race Tagged: children's mental health, ethnic identity, parenting, parenting tips, racial and ethnic socialization, racial discrimination, racial identity, racial socialization, resilience

3 Essential Tips to Help All Kids to Embrace Their Race and Ethnicity


This is the fourth in a series of blog posts that the American Psychological Association (APA) will publish regarding racial/ethnic socialization practices, programs, and approaches. APA is putting together a clearinghouse of resources to help parents/caregivers to protect youth of color and themselves from the psychological damage of discrimination and racism. For more information regarding APA’s new initiative and to provide feedback as we continue to engage in this series, please visit: www.apa.org/pi/res


By Chelsea Derlan, PhD (Asst. Professor of Developmental Psychology, Arizona State University)


In their daily lives, children receive many direct and subtle messages involving their racial-ethnic background from others:


“But how can he be your dad? You don’t match.”


“You should put on sunscreen because you don’t want to get too dark.”


“I always thought Black people couldn’t swim. You act White though, maybe that’s it.”


Although we cannot control every interaction our child has with others, what we can do is build up positive messages that influence the effect these interactions have on them. For example, what if we had engaged in racial-ethnic socialization (RES) that involved the following messages:


“You are such a perfect mix of mine and your fathers’ cultures.”


“You have beautiful brown skin. I love how you get darker in the sun.”


“Your ancestors are Black kings and queens. You can do anything you put your mind to.”

The RES we provide can have profound effects on our children’s well-being. Here are a few tips:


1. RES is important for all children.

It is important that we talk about race-ethnicity with children – all children. A recent ethnic-racial identity intervention study provided an opportunity for teenagers to explore their culture and develop a clearer sense of what their ethnicity-race meant to them. Participating had positive effects on youth from all racial-ethnic backgrounds.

As caregivers, we can set up similar opportunities by providing a space for our children to ask questions, process, and learn. Given our unique histories and everyday realities, we will want to tailor messages based on our children’s specific culture and experiences. For example, we might choose to prepare children for bias they may encounter, highlight stories of their ancestors, or build pride in their appearance. For ideas and activities, check out 25 mini-films for exploring race-ethnicity.


2. It is never too early to start.

Caregivers often wonder when it is the right time to begin RES. The answer is that it is never too early to start. Research tells us that by kindergarten, many children already know what their race-ethnicity is, and use race-ethnicity as a way to understand themselves and others. We know that when caregivers engage in RES it has positive effects on children’s academics, behavior, and language skills.

An important thing to keep in mind is to craft messages so they make sense to children based on their age and level of understanding. Very young children tend to focus on the parts of culture that they can see, such as skin tone and hair. For example, with Black children, you might start with books or videos that highlight how all hair is good hair, skin comes in lots of wonderful shades, or that feature Black boys and Black girls as main characters. Sometimes it is easiest to simply start talking, and other times it is helpful to read a book or watch a video, and then build a conversation afterwards.


3. Don’t give up!

Despite our most dedicated efforts, there will be times when children question and/or disagree with our teachings.

I came across an article in which a mother wrote about a time when her daughter said: “Mommy, I don’t want to be Black like you.” After talking to her daughter she realized that

“… it wasn’t that my daughter didn’t want to be Black, she was simply struggling to deal with her perception and understanding of who she is. Realistically, I know how the world will view her, and I can’t shield her from it. What I can do is make sure she knows who she is, that she is loved, and that she loves herself, fully.”

Although times like these can be discouraging, we can’t give up. We have to listen, and remember that the ways our children are understanding and interpreting their experiences may not always match our own.


RES is a process that involves many lessons over time. As children have different experiences, new things will pop up. Our goal is to create a support system so they know there is someone they can go to who will talk and/or listen. It is about planting those positive seeds for them that they can water when they need to. It is an opportunity for us to show our children love and compassion, to help them understand themselves, and to prepare for a better tomorrow with our children today!


Learn more:

Start healthy conversations about race/ethnicity with your kids today. Download APA’s RESilience Parent Tip Tool




Chelsea Derlan, PhD, is an assistant professor of developmental psychology at Arizona State University. Broadly, her work examines how risk factors (e.g., discrimination) and resilience factors (e.g., cultural socialization) inform ethnic-racial minority youths’ positive psychological, academic, and health outcomes. Guided by cultural ecological models, she considers the role of family, school, and other key contexts. Her research is focused in two main areas:

(a) assessing what young children understand and feel about their culture (i.e., ethnic-racial identification), and how this plays a role in development, and

(b) examining the interplay between individual and contextual factors as they inform adolescents’ ethnic-racial identity and adjustment.


Image source: iStockPhoto.com

Filed under: Children and Youth, Culture, Ethnicity and Race Tagged: children's mental health, ethnic identity, ethnicity, parenting, race, racial and ethnic socialization, racial identity, resilience, stereotypes, stereotyping

“But Daddy, Why Was He Shot?”: How to Talk to Children about Race Today

Facts of Life

This is the first in a series of blog posts that the American Psychological Association (APA) will publish regarding racial/ethnic socialization practices, programs, and approaches. APA is putting together a clearinghouse of resources to help parents/caregivers to protect youth of color and themselves from the psychological damage of discrimination and racism. For more information regarding APA’s new initiative and to provide feedback as we continue to engage in this series, please visit: www.apa.org/pi/res


By Riana Anderson, PhD (Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania)


Whenever there is news of a criminal’s non-indictment for violence committed against Black people, I run to Facebook to assess the pulse of my friends and colleagues. It’s a phenomenon that started the day after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin. My newsfeed was ablaze with the desperate, despondent, and disastrous beliefs of current and hopeful parents.


“It almost seems irresponsible now to have and raise a child of color in this country.”

“Deeply saddened. Disappointed. What is the message for my sons, cousins…don’t go outside?”

“…I love you and I am scared as you guys get older.”


All parents are concerned for their children’s safety, but parents of color shoulder a particularly challenging burden raising children in a racially charged society. In particular, the messages and behaviors that parents express to their children regarding race are known as Racial/Ethnic Socialization (RES). Much has been written on RES —formal review articles, blogs, more blogs, and even more blogs—but at a time when racial conflict is especially visible via social and mass media, caregivers may be wondering what is best to say to children of color.


Although no magic formula exists for helping children of color get through the racial dynamics of our society, here are a few things that research tells us are useful:


1. Talking is both said and unsaid

You may believe that you have said all the things you want to say to your child, especially the things the research indicates most parents of color say to their children—cultural socialization (or pride), preparation for bias, promotion of distrust, and equality—but have you also noticed what you are not saying to them? If the TV is on and you are full of emotion, do you explain to your child what it is that is making you so scared and frustrated? RES is not just the explicit sharing of messages, it is also implicit—what we don’t say is just as important as what we do say. This is true for actions too – what we do and don’t do both provide models for our children. Children are always watching (and parents thought they had eyes in the back of their head!), so be mindful of what they see and how you explain your actions.


2. You have to start somewhere

Sometimes, parents can be so paralyzed by our own frustrations or fears that it is challenging to talk to our children about race. Some parents may even feel like bringing up race can add to the anxiety that our children feel about racial experiences. On the contrary, the majority of research shows that there are some great benefits to instilling pride and preparing both children and adolescents of color for the bias they will face. Children of color often have better psychological, physiological, and academic outcomes when parents use some combination of pride and preparation. We think of it this way – if a flight attendant prepares passengers for plane crashes, wouldn’t it be just as logical for parents to prepare children for the sting of discriminatory experiences that the majority of Black people report facing throughout their lifetime?


3. Do you understand your own stress?

Just as my peers indicated in their Facebook posts several years ago, a very real fear may exist in communicating with our children about racial encounters. Oftentimes, parents have unresolved stress and trauma ourselves, so asking us to provide assistance for our children can be challenging. Prior to talking to your children, it may be useful to talk to your partner, parent, friend, or therapist about how you feel.

If we as parents are not attuned to our feelings on racial matters, we may be unconsciously communicating our discomfort to our children. Indeed, children who receive more frequent messages of distrust (which can be a generalization from a personal or communicated experience) and/or equality (which may just be avoidance of racial topics for some parents) have less consistent well-being outcomes relative to their peers who receive pride and preparatory messages. Although it is important to start somewhere with our children, we may have to start with ourselves first.


Since very young children can detect differences in race and start to make meaning of those differences, it is important for caregivers to be prepared to have open and honest dialogue about the history, present-day practices, and future hopes for race in our society.


To learn more about APA’s new initiative on racial and ethnic socialization (RES), please visit http://www.apa.org/pi/res and watch the video below:


Questions for you to consider:

  • What are my personal beliefs about racism and discrimination today?
  • How is my child being impacted by the racial climate around him/her?
  • In what ways am I addressing both my and my child’s concerns about race?
  • What resources would help me to feel comfortable and confident in addressing race issue with my child?


Don’t miss our Twitter chat!

Join the conversation! APA will cohost a Twitter chat (#kidstalkrace) on the benefits of parents having healthy conversations on race with kids on July 28, 2017 from 4 to 5 PM (ET): http://vite.io/kidstalkrace

Resilience _KidsTalkRace Flyer 2.png




Riana Anderson, PhD, is a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in the Applied Psychology and Human Development Division (APHD). Her current fellowship is with Dr. Howard Stevenson in the Racial Empowerment Collaborative (REC), which centers on cultural pride, coping and parenting, culturally specific parenting strategies, and other ways of reducing race-related stress. She received her doctorate in Clinical and Community Psychology at the University of Virginia and was a Clinical and Community Psychology Pre-doctoral Fellow at Yale University’s School of Medicine. Dr. Anderson graduated from the University of Michigan in 2006 with degrees in Psychology and Political Science. She then taught for 2 years with Teach For America in Atlanta, GA. She has also conducted community based participatory research at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, and neuropsychological research at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Anderson aims to assist at-risk youth with practical applications of her research and clinical services, as well as through academic instruction and policy recommendations. She strives to improve the psychological outcomes for African American youth through expanded coping strategies, discovery and encouragement of alternative outcomes, culturally and contextually relevant parenting programs, and community building, participation, and collaboration. One of her goals is to create youth centers and interventions that support the mental and physical health— as well as educational goals—of African American youth in urban communities.

Filed under: Children and Youth, Culture, Ethnicity and Race Tagged: children's mental health, ethnicity, parenting, parenting tips, race, racial bias, racial discrimination, racial identity, racism, resilience

Are You Talking to Parents About Keeping Guns Away from Children? 5 Reasons You Absolutely Should

A small child staring at a hand gun within reach on a table

By Clinton W. Anderson, PhD (Interim Executive Director, Public Interest Directorate, American Psychological Association)

Psychologists are recognized as having important knowledge about psychological health and development. That is why parents routinely seek our advice on a wide range of issues affecting their children’s well-being. However, protecting children from gun violence is a rarely broached topic. June 21 is National ASK (Asking Saves Kids) Day. Launched in 2000 by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the ASK campaign reminds health professionals, parents, and caregivers of the importance of asking if there are unlocked guns in the homes where children live and play.


Once this question is asked, a frank discussion about protecting children from the dangers of gun violence can begin. Although the conversation may be awkward, having it could potentially save their child’s life. And yes, psychologists and other health professionals are well within their rights to do so. A federal appeals court in Florida recently ruled that state laws prohibiting doctor-patient discussions of guns violated the First Amendment. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors and nurses address firearm safety as part of their routine guidance with patients and parents.  As psychologists, we have extensive education and training that equip us to understand and communicate the dangers of guns in the home. Regardless of our areas of expertise or professional setting, we have a vital role to play.

Here’s why:

1. Firearm safety is a public health issue:

Gun violence has leached into every aspect of our American way of life. It occurs in every setting whether Americans are at work, at play, at worship, at school, or at home. Our efforts to prevent gun violence need to be informed by the best evidence.

2. Children often have far too easy access to guns:

Parents should be aware that guns are like Christmas presents – kids will find them no matter how well hidden they are. Many parents have unrealistic expectations about their kids’ behavior toward guns. High-quality research shows that training kids to stay away from or not handle guns does not work. We must communicate to parents that the best preventive measure against gun injury or death among children is removing guns from the household entirely.

3. Developmental factors contribute to risk of gun violence for children:

Many parents are unaware of the developmental factors that make keeping firearms in the home risky for children. For instance, they underestimate the inquisitiveness of young children who are primed to explore and test boundaries. Many don’t even realize that 2- or 3-year-olds possess the strength to pull a gun’s trigger. Similarly, during the teen years, traits like impulsivity, a sense of invulnerability, and temporary but intense feelings of despondency contribute to risk of firearm use. Some experts counsel that it is best not to have guns at all in a home with teenagers. Psychologists and other health professionals can help parents understand these risk factors.

4. Children with behavioral problems are at greater risk:

Parents with children showing behavioral health problems should consider that these problems may elevate risk of harm when there are accessible firearms in the home.  If they have children or teens with mood disorders, substance abuse (including alcohol), or a history of suicide attempts, encourage them to remove or restrict access to firearms. Arrange for the adult to talk to a psychologist or pediatrician if questions persist.

5. If guns are in the home, they should be treated like all other household dangers:

We routinely tell parents to take precautions to make their homes as safe as possible for their children. We tell them to keep household cleaners, prescription medicines, and even alcohol and cigarettes out of their children’s reach. Households and families with firearms should treat guns the same way.

  • Encourage parents to store all firearms at another location – alternate storage options include:
    • at another licensed gun owner’s home
    • in a secure storage unit
    • in a bonded warehouse for gun storage
  • If adults insist on keeping firearms in the home, emphasize that it is critical to store guns unloaded, in a securely locked location, and with ammunition stored in a separate locked container. One caveat: although locked storage provides some protection, parents should know that it may not prove effective against children’s creativity, curiosity, and persistence.
  • If their child will be spending time in another family’s home, advise parents to ASK whether there are guns in the home, and if so, how they are stored before sending their child over to play.

We all have a responsibility to reduce the risk of gun violence in America, particularly for our youngest citizens. It starts with you:



I would like to thank Susan Sorenson, PhD, (Director, Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence), and W. Rodney Hammond, PhD, (retired Director of the Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control) for sharing their input and expertise for this blog post.


Image source: iStockPhoto

Filed under: Children and Youth, Health and Wellness, Violence Tagged: accidental death, ASK day, children's health, children's mental health, firearm safety, firearm violence, gun safety, gun violence, gun violence prevention, homicide, parenting, parenting tips, public health, suicide

Grandparents as Foster Parents: The New Family on the Block


By Tonya Davis, PhD, Karen Ethridge, PhD, & Natasha Black, MS (Alabama A&M University)


“We thought we were done raising children. We love our grandchildren, but we are too old to raise more children.”

This statement was made by an African-American couple in their late sixties who we will call the Does. The Does assumed custody of their 8 and 12 year-old grandchildren after they were placed in foster care resulting from their mother’s arrest for child endangerment and drug possession. Later, authorities determined the mother had been arrested during a drug raid. Meanwhile, the children were left home alone for 3 days. While this story is a heartbreaking tale of woe, it is only one of the many scenarios associated with children in the child welfare system.


The phenomenon of grandparents serving as custodial parents is a persistent reality given the record numbers of children entering into the foster care system. Of the 427, 910 children in foster care in 2015, 30%, or 127, 821, are in the care of a relative according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. Family arrangements that include placements with a grandparent or a relative are referred to as kinship family placements. Evidence suggests that children who cannot live with their biological parents fare better overall when living with extended family than with non-related foster parents.


Research has shown that children raised by grandparents in kinship placements are at higher risk of a mental illness, as well as academic and behavioral difficulties. Compounding the difficulty is that most grandparent incomes consist of fixed or retirement incomes that are below poverty lines. Thus, grandparents’ serving as foster parents is a population trending towards an increased need of an array of counseling and case management services.


Treatment Issues Unique to Foster Grandchildren


The Triad Complication:

Kinship family arrangements usually involve a triangular dynamic that include the biological parent, grandparent, and the child. Implications associated with this dynamic often include:

  • increased stress levels,
  • anxiety,
  • embarrassment,
  • anger,
  • behavioral acting out by the child as well as feelings of guilt and shame.

When differences of opinion arise, this can serve as a major contributor of stress for caregivers (the grandparent).


Grandparent Anxiety/Stress Triggers:

As stressors and anxiety perpetuate, the foster grandparents are less inclined to maintain their own health and financial stability. Their anxiety is triggered by:

  1. role confusion
  2. limited financial support
  3. declining health issues, and
  4. school related concerns

In the child welfare system, social workers will assist with providing an array of services such as financial assistance as long as the children are still in the legal custody of the state system, but when granted full custody the financial burden is transferred to the foster grandparent.


Child Identity Crisis:

Social separation from the birth parent, according to Bowlby (1973), will create a variety of emotional and behavioral problems stemming from attachment to separation disorder. Subsequently, most foster grandchildren reside in the grandparents’ home, while maintaining interaction with their birth parents depending on their case. This connection to their birth parent can cause role confusion within the child. The child will begin to question: Who is my caregiver? Who do I obey? And most importantly, who do I trust? These inquiries result in a rise of conflict on rules and boundaries for the child, as well as discipline and a sense of permanency. This becomes the presenting problem that mental health professionals will devise a treatment plan to resolve.


How can mental health professionals assist intergenerational families?


Promoting proactive mental health…

By using various psychological interventions, the mental health professional can build family strengths while proactively delivering services that reduce adverse outcomes for grandparents and grandchildren. Aims of therapy should include techniques designed to reduce tensions between the resistant child and grandparent and improve coping for both grandparent and grandchild. Therapists should not neglect providing individual sessions for the grandparent to work through anxiety/stressors.


Connecting the school and grandparent partnership…

Research has indicated that family/school partnerships are important. More importantly, interventions should occur across home, school, and community settings. Schools are in a unique position to assist foster grandparents by serving as ecological contexts for reciprocal learning. Intergenerational learning activities may serve as one method for assisting with bridging the gap for foster grandparents. Specifically, schools may establish grandparent councils, grandparent support groups, and other services designed to assist grandparents with caring for the academic and behavioral needs of their grandchildren.


Integrating dynamic social workers in the child welfare system…

A dynamic social worker will educate foster grandparents on the resources available. Most foster grandparents are not aware of the financial, educational, medical and psychological services available to them. The social worker will use community resources to connect foster grandparents as social support for each other and accountability agents of healthier lifestyles. The psychological and medical treatment of both the grandparent and the grandchildren can be addressed by promoting awareness of access to insurance options and public health care options that contribute lower out-of-pocket costs of visits.




Bowlby, J. (1973). Separation. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.

Care and Custody: Summary & Analysis. Retrieved  from www2.grandfamilies.org/CareandCustody/CareandCustodySummaryAnalysis.aspx

US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). (2012). Report 19.  Retrieved from:  www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/resource/afcars-report-19.




Tonya Davis, PhD, is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor working in private practice for over 15 years providing counseling and assessment services for families and children. She has an extensive history of working with families and children from diverse ethnic backgrounds, as well as children who have experienced trauma. She currently serves on the faculty of Alabama A&M University as an Assistant Professor in the Psychology & Counseling Department. She completed her doctoral degree in School Psychology from the University of Alabama. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Karen Ethridge, PhD, currently serves as an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University. She received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Sociology from The University of Alabama in Huntsville. She earned her Master of Science in Psychology (with a concentration in Personnel Administration and Industrial Organizational Psychology) from Alabama A&M University in Normal, Alabama. She completed her doctoral degree in Educational Psychology from Capella University. Her research interests are academic self-efficacy and academic success in college students. She is currently the co-director of the Prevention and Learning Lab at Alabama A&M University where one of the goals is to focus on instructional learning and efficacy. She has worked with the Madison County Department of Human Resources as a Social Service Supervisor from 1998 to 2004. Since 2004, she initially served as an adjunct professor, then as an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University in the Psychology and Counseling Department. She can be contacted at [email protected].

Natasha R. Black is a current student at Alabama A&M University completing her second Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. She has completed her first Master’s degree in Family and Consumer Sciences with a concentration in Human Development with Alabama A&M University as well. Her experience includes clinical mental health services, a history of work with at-risk youth and their families, and comprehensive work with the intellectually disabled. Her research interests include neuropsychology advancement, family and child psychology, and human psychological development.

Filed under: Children and Youth Tagged: foster care, foster parents, grandchildren, grandparenting, grandparents, parenting

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child? The Unexpected Way Religious Beliefs Influence Parents’ Views of Discipline



This is the seventh in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.


By Cindy Miller-Perrin, PhD (Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University)


How do religious beliefs impact parents’ positions on the use of physical discipline with their children?


Parents’ support for using physical punishment with their children varies, to some degree, by religious affiliation. Both the United Methodist Church and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, for example, have passed resolutions encouraging parents to avoid the use of physical punishment in favor of other forms of discipline. Members of other faith traditions such as the Jewish, Catholic, and Mormon faiths appear to have also either discouraged or prohibited the use of physical punishment with children.

Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, represent one faith tradition where physical punishment of children is sometimes recommended and encouraged. Conservative Protestants are significantly more likely than parents of other religious backgrounds to support and practice corporal punishment. This support of corporal punishment is largely based on conservative beliefs that the Bible is inerrant and should be interpreted literally.

In addition, many Conservative Protestants believe that children are prone to egocentrism and sinfulness at birth and therefore the parent must shape the will of the inherently rebellious child. From this perspective, the child’s submission serves as a model for their future relationship with God.


Are Christian parents biblically mandated to spank their children?


Does the Bible teach parents to spank their children? The routinely repeated phrase ‘‘spare the rod, spoil the child’’ does not actually appear in the Bible. Instead, it is a popularized paraphrase of several verses in Proverbs. Four of the most commonly cited verses include the following from the New International Version:

He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him. (Proverbs 13:24)

Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away. (Proverbs 22:15)

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death. (Proverbs 23:13–14)

Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being. (Proverbs 20:30)

The important question, of course, is whether these passages should be interpreted as a mandate to spank, and whether the growing empirical research that spanking does more harm than good should contribute to the conversation.

For many progressive Christians and biblical scholars (including many Conservative Protestant scholars), the Bible should be read with an understanding of the cultural context in which its passages were written. Children in the ancient world were devalued, and often mistreated. Infanticide was not uncommon. They also lived in a world where violence was understood as the only disciplinary tool. The phrase “time out” does not appear in the Bible!

Given their lowly status in the ancient world, and the role of violence in that world, it is not surprising that the writer of Proverbs (presumably King Solomon) would have spoken of the “rod of discipline.” Once we understand this context, the passages take on new meaning. They are actually meant to place limits on violence in a world in which the weak and powerless, including children and slaves, were sometimes violently mistreated. It is also important to note that Jesus never advocated for physical discipline of children.

Both the Old and New Testaments clearly speak of disciplining children, but spanking and physical punishment are not synonymous with discipline. Today we know that there are other ways to discipline children, with many alternative methods empirically supported as more effective and less potentially harmful than spanking. Considering the Bible’s attempt to regulate and control physical violence during its time, it seems reasonable to argue that a modern day reading of the scriptures should not be interpreted as an endorsement of physical punishment.



So, what goes into positive Christian parenting?


There are many positive findings associated with Christian parenting that suggest that Christian beliefs and parenting can be combined to be effective without the use of physical discipline. The belief that the Bible is God’s true word and that it has answers to important human problems, for example, has been positively associated with praise and hugs.

Sanctification of parenting, or the belief that parenting holds spiritual significance, is associated with:

  • increased consistency in responding to child misbehavior,
  • less use of verbal aggression,
  • increased frequency of praising a child’s behavior and character,
  • greater emphasis on the importance of moral responsibility,
  • greater investment in parenting,
  • sharing more positive memories with one’s child, and
  • having a greater emotional tie with one’s child.

Key factors associated with favorable Christian parenting appear to relate to both parental faith-based actions and beliefs. For example, parents who identify their religious affiliation as Conservative Protestant report more frequent use of physical punishment than parents of other faiths. However, parents who attend religious services report less frequent physical punishment than parents who do not attend religious services, once religious affiliation has been accounted for statistically. 

In addition, interpreting religious content symbolically rather than literally has been associated with positive parenting qualities such as:

  • being supportive toward children and their independence,
  • exerting little psychological control over children, and
  • stressing the importance of the child developing a sense of self, contributing to the community, and building friendships.




Abelow, B. J. (2011). The shaping of New Testament narrative and salvation teachings by painful childhood experience. Archive for the Psychology of Religion, 33(1), 1-54.

Ellison, C. G., & Bradshaw, M. (2009). Religious beliefs, sociopolitical ideology, and attitudes toward corporal punishment. Journal of Family Issues, 30, 320-340.

Ellison, C. G., Musick, M. A., & Holden, G. W. (2011). Does Conservative Protestantism moderate the association between corporal punishment and child outcomes? Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, 946-961.

Fréchette, S., & Romano, E. (2015). Change in corporal punishment over time in a representative sample of Canadian parents. Journal of Family Psychology, 29, 507-517.

General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA. (2012, July 6). General Assembly adopts wide range of social justice issues. Retrieved from: http://www.pcusa.org/news/2012/7/6/general-assembly-adopts-wide-range-social-justice-/

Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 2013, 133–137.

Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016a). Corporal punishment by parents and its consequences for children: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 30, 453-469.

Ingram, C. (n.d.). The biblical approach to spanking. Focus on the Family. Retrieved from http://www.focusonthefamily.com/parenting/effective-biblical-discipline/effective-childdiscipline/biblical-approach-to-spanking

Gershoff, E. T., Miller, P. C., & Holden, G. W. (1999). Parenting influences from the pulpit: Religious affiliation as a determinant of parental corporal punishment. Journal of Family Psychology, 13, 307-320.

Greven, P. (1991). Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Grogan-Kaylor, A., & Otis, M. D. (2007). The predictors of parental use of corporal punishment. Family Relations, 56, 80-91.

Miller-Perrin, C.L., & Krumrei Mancuso, E. (2015). Why faith matters: A positive psychology perspective. Dordrecht: Springer.

Nolan, B. (2011, Feb 27). Corporal punishment at St. Augustine is morally troubling, New Orleans archbishop says. The Times-Picayune. Retrieved from http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2011/02/corporal_punishment_at_st_aug.html

Perrin, R., Miller-Perrin, C., & Song, J. (in press). Changing attitudes about spanking using alternative biblical interpretations. International Journal of Behavioral Development.

Petts, R. J. (2012). Single mothers’ religious participation and early childhood behavior. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 251-268.

Swan, R. (2007). Corporal punishment, religious attitudes toward. In N. A. Jackson (Ed.), The encyclopedia of domestic violence (pp. 205- 208). New York, NY: Routledge.

Taylor, C. A., Lee, S. J., Guterman, N. B., & Rice, J. C. (2010). Use of spanking for 3-year-old children and associated intimate partner aggression or violence. Pediatrics, 126, 415-424.

United Methodist Church. (2008). Discipline children without corporal punishment (Social Principles, 162C).

The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church – 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/discipline-children-without-corporal-punishment



Dr. Cindy Miller-Perrin earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Washington State University and is currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University. She enjoys teaching undergraduates and is the recipient of the 2008 Howard A. White Award for Teaching Excellence at Pepperdine. She is a licensed clinical psychologist who has worked with maltreated, developmentally delayed, and other troubled children and their families.  Dr. Miller-Perrin has authored numerous journal articles and book chapters covering a range of topics, including physical punishment, child maltreatment, family violence, and vocation and life purpose.  She has co-authored four books, including Why Faith Matters: A Positive Psychology Perspective (with E. Krumrei, 2014), Family Violence Across the Lifespan (with O. Barnett & R. Perrin, Sage 1997, 2005, 2011), Child Maltreatment (with R. Perrin, Sage 1999, 2007, 2013), and Child Sexual Abuse: Sharing the Responsibility (with S. Wurtele, University of Nebraska Press, 1992).  She serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, and Advances in Child and Family Policy and Practice.  She is a Fellow in the American Psychological Association (APA) and has served as the President of the Section on Child Maltreatment and Member-At-Large for Division 37 Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice of APA.  She is currently President of APA’s Division 37.

Image sources: iStockPhoto.com

Filed under: Children and Youth, Uncategorized Tagged: christian parenting, discipline, parenting, physical discipline, religious beliefs, religious parents, spanking

Corporal Punishment: A Wrong Not a Right


This is the sixth in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.

By Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, JD (Professor of Law, Emory University)

No person has a “right” to strike another, no matter how close the relationship. I remember fifty years ago seeing a mother chase her child with a stick, shouting “I brought you into this world and I can put you in the cemetery!”  Luckily, the child was faster than his mother.  But the idea of a “right” to hit a child is no laughing matter.  It belongs in the dustbin of history along with a husband’s right to “discipline” his wife provided the stick he used was no thicker than his thumb.

Sometimes even good and loving parents can lose patience and resort to a spanking. That doesn’t make them criminals, but it does not make spanking into a right.  As a purely pragmatic matter, spanking is wrong.  Studies have shown that spanking and other harsh methods make children’s behavior worse not better.  But parents in our legal system are given a lot of leeway in how they raise their children.  In most states, corporal punishment only crosses the line into child abuse if it poses a serious risk of physical or psychological harm.

So how can I say that there is no “right” to spank your child?

There is a huge difference between what parents may do without becoming criminals and what they have a “right” to do. Under our constitutional system, a right is a fundamental freedom that deserves special constitutional protection.

Parental autonomy – including the freedom to make individual decisions about child rearing–has long been recognized as essential to American democracy. Individual choice in child bearing and child rearing are considered are fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty.

Our family laws presume that parents have their children’s best interests at heart and are in the best position to understand their children’s needs. For these reasons, many aspects of child rearing are constitutionally protected, including parental rights to make decisions about education, medical care and religious upbringing.

But the Supreme Court has never held that parents have an unbridled constitutional right to discipline their child as they see fit. Instead, it has consistently held that parental freedoms end where harm to the child begins (see Prince v. Massachusetts). Those who disagree have tried and repeatedly failed to amend the constitution to add language that would recognize an affirmative right of parents to use corporal punishment.  The majority of parents and teachers, doctors and mental health experts, judges and advocates for abused and neglected children, and experts in constitutional law have defeated all efforts to enshrine spanking as a constitutional right. Corporal punishment too often escalates and ends tragically in child abuse.

There was a time when the slogan “spare the rod and spoil the child” was accepted as common wisdom. But the evidence is mounting that harsh discipline is actually detrimental to children and damaging to society.  Nations around the world now recognize that corporal punishment violates the rights of the child, offends children’s dignity and harms their development. No matter how well intentioned, spanking is a wrong and not a “right”.


Barbara Bennett Woodhouse is among the nation’s foremost experts on children’s rights. She joined the Emory Law faculty in 2009 as the L. Q. C. Lamar Chair in Law. Her scholarship and teaching focus on child law, child welfare, comparative and international family law, adoption, and constitutional law. Read her full faculty profile here.


For more on the outcomes of spanking for children, read this study analyzing 50 years of research addressing this topic.

Image source: Flickr user Jessica Lucia via Creative Commons

Filed under: Children and Youth Tagged: child abuse, child rights, corporal punishment, discipline, parental rights, parenting, physical punishment, spanking

7 Essential Tips to Help You Master Disciplining Your Kids


This is the fifth in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.


By Joan Grusec, PhD (Professor Emerita of Psychology, University of Toronto)


Discipline has a significant role to play in what is arguably the world’s most important job—raising children to be moral and responsible members of society. And, not surprisingly, there’s no shortage of advice about how to do it. Type “disciplining children” into a search engine and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of results. If you want a book about parenting and discipline there are thousands to choose from.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of contradictory advice to choose from—

  • be strict but not too strict,
  • comply with your child’s wishes but don’t give in to them too much.
  • Be a tiger mom, a dolphin mom, a jellyfish mom….

So, what does a substantial body of psychological research, spanning more than 70 years, tell us about the best way to teach moral values to children?


Children learn values, both good and bad, from observing other people including their parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and television characters. They learn values, both good and bad, from talking about those values with parents, siblings, friends, and teachers. When children fail to behave well, however, parents have to turn to discipline.


Check out the seven tips below:

For discipline to work, children have to be clear about what the rules for good behavior are and they have to be willing to go along with or accept those rules.


How should parents make rules clear?

  1. Be consistent—it’s confusing when what was OK yesterday isn’t OK today.
  2. Provide reasons for good behavior that make sense and that the child can understand. Most 4-year-olds won’t comprehend discussions of property rights but they do understand that it feels bad to have your possessions taken without your permission.
  3. Have your child’s full attention. Too much anger and upset (on the part of both parent and child) is not conducive to calm discussion. Wait until tempers have cooled before talking about rules and the reasons for them.
  4. Make sure you don’t end up implicitly condoning unacceptable behavior. For example, in addition to its direct effect on children’s learning of values, discipline provides a model of how to resolve conflict. When your discipline involves calm discussion, exchange of points of view, and explanation, as well as negotiation and compromise if appropriate, you provide a good model for conflict resolution. Discipline that involves yelling, hitting, insulting, or unreasonable requests sends the message that verbal and physical aggression, along with an unwillingness to take into account the other person’s perspective, are acceptable ways to behave.


How should you get your children to accept the rules?               

  1. Let them experience appropriate negative consequences but don’t threaten their feelings of autonomy — no one likes to be forced into behaving in a particular way. Autonomy is supported when you:
    • allow choice where reasonable (for example, “you have to eat vegetables but would you prefer spinach or green beans”),
    • provide good reasons for required behavior,
    • try to understand your child’s perspective, and
    • don’t apply more negative consequences than are necessary to promote good behavior.
  2. Be accepting and caring so that your child wants to please you.
  3. Encourage your child to feel empathy by talking about the effects of their actions on others.



Joan Grusec, PhD, is a Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto. Her research interests throughout her career have focused on discipline and the development of children’s prosocial behavior. She is the author or editor of several books related to the socialization of children, as well as more than 100 book chapters and research publications.


Image source: Flickr user Bethany Petrik via Creative Commons

Filed under: Children and Youth Tagged: child behavior, Children, children's mental health, discipline, parenting, parenting skills, parenting tips, positive parenting

Why Positive Parenting Trumps Physical Punishment When It Comes to Disciplining Kids



This is the fourth in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.


By Gail Goodman, PhD (Director, UC Davis Center for Public Policy Research)


Why do we have children? It could be to bring more love into our lives. Or maybe it’s just because we slipped up one night while in a passionate embrace. Of course, there are many other reasons as well. Some parents are just kids themselves, some are single without another adult for support, some are poor and in great need. Personal situations can make life more difficult, for sure.


Even in the best of circumstances, parenting is super hard work and takes tremendous patience. When we have so many other concerns in life – a bad day, self-doubts, problems at work, or no work at all, not enough money, a rotten neighborhood, or drug addiction – and then we add in a child who is misbehaving, it is tempting to give the child a smack. After all, that was done to most American kids growing up, and most everyone says “I turned out fine,” or “I deserved it,” or “It was better than being yelled at.” And many religious and cultural ideas suggest that kids actually need a good hit. But let me tell you what the research shows: Spanking does not achieve our parenting goals.


In the end, we hope for well-adjusted children who are moral, happy, and loving. To achieve this, children need acceptance, love, and support. Physical punishment does not lead children to feel accepted, loved and supported. John Bowlby (1982) and Mary Ainsworth (1989), in their work on attachment theory, got it right. They emphasized the importance of a positive parent-child relationship for children’s mental health and well-being.


African American father and son

According to attachment theory, important parts of the child’s brain are highly activated under conditions of threat (e.g., separation, physical assault). Spanking is a condition of threat. Even in infancy, the child’s “attachment system” essentially “asks” the following fundamental question: Is the caretaker nearby, accessible, positively responsive, loving, and attentive? If “yes,” the child will feel loved, secure, and confident, and, behaviorally, is likely to explore and learn, to have empathy, to be a leader, and to be sociable. Most parents likely agree that those are good things.


But if the answer is “no,” the child first feels scared, rejected, and then angry, and is likely to develop anxious or avoidant tendencies, be more immature, have lower self-esteem, experience more trouble learning, and to exhibit worse mental health. The child is less likely to feel empathy for others, less likely to be a leader, and less likely to be sociable. This anxious or avoidant response is associated with what we call “insecure attachment.”



Spanking is significantly related to insecure infant attachment1probably because the answer to the question above is “no.” Ideally, you don’t want any “no’s” because a negative is much stronger than a positive. As Baumeister and colleagues (2001) put it, “Bad is stronger than good,” meaning negative experiences in life have a more lasting effect and are remembered better than positive experiences. Children are just forming their impressions of themselves and others, so negative things, like a whooping, can have a whopping negative effect.


These early attachment relationships follow us into adulthood2,3,4. The attachments we have with our own parents affect how we raise our children. Parents’ attachment insecurities (as assessed by self-report scales) are associated with heightened use of physical punishment inflicted on their children5. Theoretically, the parent’s attachment insecurities relate to the parent’s own childhood experiences.


When a child is distressed, avoidant parents (e.g., ones who are uncomfortable with close emotionally intimate relationships due to their own childhoods) become less supportive, more likely to hit. We can see that tendency even in doctor’s offices when children are getting shots6 or before and after invasive medical procedures7.


 Facts of Life

Research confirms that positive parenting has much better outcomes than physical punishment or than other negative approaches, like belittling kids8,9. Using physical discipline with children sets many up to have trouble in school, to have problems with authority figures, to act out aggressively toward others, to be prejudiced and depressed, to take drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, and to build psychological (if not real) walls for emotional defense10,11.


Positive child outcomes are more likely when parents refrain from using physical punishment and other negative parenting practices, and instead treat their children with warmth, reasoned communication, and nurturing. Studies find that this type of positive parenting can foster positive psychological outcomes, such as high self-esteem and cooperation with others, as well as improved achievement in school.

See, for example:


Parents can be brave and bold—Take a positive approach, even if it means going against how you were raised. Children will be more cooperative and better off, parents are likely to be happier, and the world will finally be a kinder place.




Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44, 709-716

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.

Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.  (Original work published 1969)

2Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Handbook of attachment, 3rd edition. New York, NY: Guilford.

5Coyl, D. D., Newland L. A., Freeman H. (2010). Predicting preschoolers’ attachment security from parenting behaviours, parents’ attachment relationships and their use of social support. Early Child Development and Care, 180, 499-512.

1Coyl, D. D., Roggman L. A., & Newland, L. A. (2002). Stress, maternal depression, and negative mother–infant interactions in relation to infant attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal,23, 145-163.

10Durrant, J., & Ensom, R. (2012). Physical punishment of children: Lessons from 20 years of research. CMAJ, 184, 1373-1377.

6Edelstein, R. S., Alexander, K. W., Shaver, P. R., Schaaf, J. M., Quas, J. A., & Goodman, G. S. (2004). Adult attachment style and parental responsiveness during a stressful event. Attachment and Human Development, 6, 31-52.

8Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 133-137.

11Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 30, 453-469.

7Goodman, G. S., Quas, J. A., Batterman-Faunce, J. M., Riddlesberger, M., & Kuhn, J. (1997). Children’s reactions to and memory for a stressful experience: Influences of age, knowledge, anatomical dolls, and parental attachment. Applied Developmental Sciences, 1, 54-75.

3Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

4Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood, and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50, 66-104.

Sanders, M. R. (2008). “Triple P-Positive Parenting Program as a public health approach to strengthening parenting”. Journal of Family Psychology. 22 (3): 506–517. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.22.3.506

9Silva, J. (2007). Parents Raising Safe Kids: ACT 8-week program for parents. Washington, D.C.:  American Psychological Association.



Dr. Gail S. Goodman is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Public Policy Research at the University of California, Davis. Her research concerns memory development, child maltreatment, trauma and memory, and children in the legal system. She has received many awards for her research and writings and has served as President of Division 7 (Developmental Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Goodman has published widely and has received many federal, state, and foundation grants. Her research has been cited in U.S. Supreme Court decisions. She obtained her PhD in Developmental Psychology from University of California, Los Angeles and conducted postdoctoral studies at the University of Denver and the Université René Descartes in Paris, France. Dr. Goodman has served on the faculty of the University of Denver, the State University of New York, and the University of Oslo, Norway. She has consulted with numerous governments and agencies throughout the world on policies and research concerning child victims in the legal system.

Image sources: Flickr via Creative Commons (1 & 3), iStockPhoto.com (2 & 4)

Filed under: Children and Youth Tagged: attachment, attachment theory, child development, children's mental health, discipline, parenting, physical punishment, positive parenting, spanking

Can You Discipline Your Child Without Using Punishment?


This is the third in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series we will  explore the reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.


By Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, ABPP (Yale University)


When we talk about discipline, we usually refer to the efforts by parents and teachers to reduce or eliminate annoying or inappropriate child behaviors. Punishment is designed to suppress or reduce behavior and may appear like the perfect match for these goals.  The term “discipline” includes the notions of instruction but also of punishment.

From the standpoint of psychological science, there is another way to consider the topic of discipline that sidesteps a sole focus on punishment. This approach begins with what we are trying to accomplish – eliminating inappropriate child behaviors and teaching habits and values.  This perspective keeps the same goals, but very much opens up the possible means of achieving these goals without the use of punishment.


Punishment in Brief

As a general rule, punishment is not a very effective way of changing behavior, at least in the usual way it is administered. By punishment, I refer to negative consequences after certain behavior (e.g., gentle reprimand, lecture, shouting, or hitting) or removing some positive consequence (e.g., placing the child in time out or away from desirable events, taking away a privilege).

As an aside, gentle, rational, and measured reasoning with a child (e.g., “We do not do that [behavior] in this house,” “What if your sister ruined your toys?” or “You, just violated a Kantian imperative”) are wonderful to teach reasoning and to model parent reasonableness under fire but not very effective as behavior-change techniques.

There are three major concerns relevant to the use of punishment.


1. Punishment even at its best, does not develop the positive behavior the parents wish.

That is, it does not teach the child what to do, but may momentarily suppress the undesired behavior.  You can reprimand the child all day for not (choose one: doing homework, practicing a musical instrument, cleaning up her room) but that will not teach her to do homework, to practice, or to clean up.  Developing behavior does not come from merely suppressing unwanted behaviors.


2. Punishment often has negative side effects

These effects include trying to escape from or avoid the situation or person associated with punishment, emotional effects (e.g., crying, being upset), and engaging in aggressive behavior. None of the side effects relates to the effectiveness of punishment (e.g., the more upset the child is not any indication of the effectiveness of punishment in suppressing behavior).  Actually, side effects “come on” or occur even with very ineffective punishment.


3. The punishment trap can lock in punishment in parent and teacher behavior.

That trap refers to the fact that punishment often stops the behavior immediately — perhaps through startle or interruption. These immediate effects (stopping of the aversive child behavior) help lock in the parent’s behavior (through negative reinforcement). By “locking in” I mean it increases the likelihood that the parent will punish in the future. In fact, the rate of the child’s misbehavior is not changed or improved, but those delayed effects do not override the impact of immediate cessation of behavior.

To be clear, punishing your child’s behavior can have multiple goals. For example, parents often want to teach a lesson, provide a just penalty to match the child’s crime, to be a responsible or “good parent”, or to follow cultural or religious practices.  These goals can be distinguished from changing child behavior.

The goals do not necessarily clash, i.e., eliminating some behavior, but the means really do.  For example, when your child carelessly destroys the family dollhouse that was built by his or her great-great-great (keep adding “greats”) grandfather from Pangaea, the supercontinent, you may want to convey the gravity of the act and punish accordingly.  At this point, a psychologist armed with “evidence-based” punishment might well say, “the science supports use of just a couple minutes of time out or brief loss of a privilege (e.g., computer, videos, bicycle) for a day.” The psychologist is speaking to behavior change but not the many goals that you, as a parent, hope to achieve.


So, How to Eliminate Behavior without Punishment

There is no evidence that punishment is really needed to achieve parent goals or to discipline children. That is a stark statement and saying that it has a strong research base is no consolation.

Here is what we know. There are ways of eliminating behavior that involve directly developing and reinforcing behaviors that are opposite to or incompatible with the behavior one wants to eliminate.  The non-technical term is reinforcing positive opposites.  This is based on many technical procedures (several differential reinforcement schedules) that have been well studied in human and nonhuman animal research (see references).  Essentially, the key point is developing the behavior one wishes rather than focusing on what to eliminate.

Consider the table below in which the goals are to change behaviors (left column). A parent or teacher might endlessly make threats, reprimand, lecture, and take privileges away for any one of those.  Yet, these interventions are extremely unlikely to work at all.  A more effective strategy is to develop the behaviors one wants, i.e., developing the positive opposite (right column).

I say “reinforcing” the opposite behavior, but this is not merely administering praise or throwing rewards at the behavior. Changing behavior focuses on antecedents (what comes before the behavior), the behavior (crafting approximations of what you wish), and consequences (usually praise delivered in a special way).  This requires some knowledge about how to craft and develop the behavior, but concrete guidelines are readily available (see the references).

The examples in the table are behaviors in everyday life but at the clinic where I work, we use positive opposites with children referred for aggressive and violent behaviors.


What you want to get rid of . . . Positive opposite… 
Siblings fighting over a TV show (or use of a computer game) Sitting and watching TV together nicely (or taking turns with game), without shouting or hitting
Child throwing his clothes all over the floor in his bedroom Placing them in his dresser or closet
Child not doing her homework Sitting quietly at her desk and doing school work for 30 minutes
Child getting out of bed again and again for a drink of water to stretch out bed time Going to bed, getting up no more than once for a drink or bathroom, and remaining in her room
Child arguing and shouting at me whenever I say no to something Expressing anger calmly


Where Does Punishment Fit in All of This?

The first point to make is that punishment is invariably the secondary part of any behavior-change effort when trying to “discipline.” That means we begin by identifying the behavior we wish to take the place of the one we want to eliminate.  We now focus on developing that behavior through the use of antecedents and consequences and shaping.  Once that primary focus is in place, mild punishment can be an effective adjunct.


Here are key tips for using punishment effectively:


1. Emphasize praise and attention for the positive opposite behaviors.  

If you are using brief time out from reinforcement as the punishment, do not expect it to work at all unless you are praising the appropriate behavior you wish during periods when your child is not in time out.


2. If punishment is to be used, make it mild and brief.  

Time out of a few minutes (e.g., 5 minutes or thereabouts) or loss of privilege (e.g., for an evening or day or two) is as effective as what you might want to do (e.g., 1 hour of time out; taking away the privilege of going out on dates until your child is 30 years old).


3. Explain to your child why he or she should or should not do something.

It is fine and indeed beneficial to do so. This models thinking, reasoning, and the appropriate style of handling a potentially volatile situation.  Yet, it is not likely to impact the frequency of the inappropriate behavior.  The familiar parental refrain, “If I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times” makes perfect sense.  That phrase is in keeping with what we know, namely, telling people to do something (e.g., stop smoking, eat more vegetables, ease up on the fast foods, add broccoli to your diet) does not mean they will do it.  Providing information can help but, done in isolation, it is not a very reliable way to change behavior in most people most of the time.


4. Avoid physical punishment. 

It is not more effective and, in fact, moderate to severe application increases the risk for all sorts of undesirable outcomes (e.g., aggressive and antisocial behavior, poor school performance, problems of physical health, damage to the immune system). The uses of physical punishment are influenced by scores of other factors, of course. And often the findings are not relevant to families or compete with what they have experienced (e.g., punishment trap is relevant here).


5. Model the behavior you wish to see in your child.  

Modeling is an untapped influence in the home, i.e., showing exactly the behaviors you wish your child to learn. Children copy parents of course, but modeling is not used strategically by parents to teach the behaviors they wish in a systematic way.


6. Avoid cliché interventions.

Our media has popularized techniques like “tough love,” “three strikes (misbehaviors) and you are out,” or reasoning that is not really well based in childrearing research (e.g., slippery slope—if I let this go, my child will keep getting worse). These are not interventions that are effective as a general rule, and they actually can make achieving the desired behaviors much more difficult..


In summary, what do we know about changing the behavior of children (and others) in the context of discipline?


The decision regarding how to discipline children is influenced by many factors and is a privilege and responsibility that comes with parenting. From the standpoint of psychological science, however, the question is, “What are the most effective ways of changing behavior based on research?” Developing positive, prosocial behavior not only develops habits you wish to see, but can eliminate behaviors that interfere with your child’s adjustment and functioning.

If the usual methods are working for your child, i.e., he or she is doing well at home and at school, everyone is satisfied, and there are no risks of untoward side effects for the child, then perhaps you do  not need to resort to methods I have highlighted. On the other hand, these methods can help ease parenting discipline challenges by achieving changes in your child’s behavior more effectively, more quickly, and more enduringly.

Research tells us that good habits, whether it is eating broccoli or flossing or developing positive opposites in relation to discipline, are not compatible with what many people wish to do or believe are advisable practices. For many parents, discipline means punishment and lessons need to be taught. That is understandable.  However, the suggestions I offer are effective in changing behavior and perhaps can be adapted to your personal and cultural views of child-rearing.



Kazdin, A.E. (2013). Behavior modification in applied settings (7th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Kazdin, A.E., & Rotella, C. (2013). The everyday parenting toolkit: The Kazdin Method for easy, step-by-step lasting change for you and your child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.



Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, ABPP, is Sterling Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University and Director of the Yale Parenting Center. He was the 2008 President of the American Psychological Association and is the author of 49 books for professional-audiences on topics of parenting and child rearing, child psychotherapy, cognitive and behavioral treatments, interpersonal violence, and research methods.  His work has been translated in several languages throughout the world.


Image source: Flickr user Dolan Holbrook via Creative Commons

Filed under: Children and Youth Tagged: child behavior, discipline, parenting, parenting tips, physical discipline, physical punishment, positive parenting, punishment