Should I Reason With Or Physically Punish My Child?

Historically, parents have relied upon the teachings of their elders to know how to raise their children. From breast-feeding to disciplining, the extended members of the family provided advice and support about child rearing. With the advent of the modern, industrialized society, people moved long distances away from their relatives, and thus, long distances away from the "advice" of fellow family members. Suddenly, parents were fending for themselves in the realm of child-rearing. A sense of isolation and sometimes even helplessness at how best to raise our children pervades many American families today. But how much help would our elders really be? Because at the same time that the extended family was becoming a thing of the past, society was changing, becoming more complex. The "simple" suburban or country life virtually ceased to exist, and adults and ultimately children, have been called upon to make difficult and more complicated decisions on a daily basis. It's not likely that our forefathers had to deal with the same issues that we "modern" parents do. What, for example, would our great grandparents have "advised" we do about the fact that our sons and daughters, in Manhattan, pass by at least a dozen porn shops daily? How would they offer support in talking to a three year old about terrorists? What kind of disciplinary or communication technique would they offer to protect our children against the violence they see on television daily? How would they handle a third grader who was offered drugs at school? These are the tough, and brand-new, questions that are facing us as parents in this day and age. So perhaps the answers about child rearing which used to be handed down from generation to generation wouldn't be sufficient even if the extended family was close by.

What then, is the answer? If we cannot rely upon the "tried and true" disciplinary methods that our ancestors used, what can we rely upon? The answer, though complex, lies, at least in part, in teaching our children to be responsible. Not that we want them to take on adult qualities, or to be adult-like, but that they need to know how to make good choices and correct decisions earlier than children used to. Because the bottom line is that we can't completely protect them from seeing the violence, the porn shops, and in general, the state of the world in which they live. Nor can we protect them from the decisions -- about drugs, sex and alcohol, among others, they will have to make living in this world.


Teaching responsibility first requires that we understand what, exactly, it means. Webster's dictionary defines responsibility as "able to answer for one's conduct or obligation, able to choose for oneself between right and wrong." We teach responsibility to our children in two ways. First, when we act in responsible ways ourselves. Children who don't have good role models for responsibility won't grow up to be responsible no matter what techniques we use. Second, we teach responsibility in the way in which we discipline our children. That discipline must include offering them choices about how to behave, and setting specific, logically related consequences for certain inappropriate behaviors. Because our children will soon have to deal with big choices in the outside world - about what kind of friends to have, about whether or not to use drugs, etc. -- they need to practice with smaller, safer choices at home. By teaching our children that the choices they make at home have consequences, and that sometimes those consequences aren't pleasant, we teach them that the choices they make in the outside world have consequences as well. They soon learn that they must answer for their "conduct or obligation" and begin to choose for themselves the "right" thing to do instead of the "wrong" thing.

There are two ways in which parents usually discipline, however, that prove to be ineffective in teaching responsibility to a child -- reasoning and physical punishment.


Children are developmentally incapable of reasoning like adults until they become adults. When we reason with them, we tend to be too permissive, to give the child too much freedom. Many times, there are no consequences for the child's actions, the parent simply talks to the child about why a particular behavior is "wrong". Because the child lacks the developmental ability to think through a complex verbal reasoning process, (ie. talking) the "moral" or point of all that talking is lost on her. Children need to experience a direct connection between their choice to misbehave and a tangible consequence. Otherwise, it becomes too difficult for them to connect the two, and they will wind up making choices randomly, just to see what will happen. The bottom line is that children learn more from actions than words. Reasoning rarely involves action.

Another pitfall of reasoning is that your child may feel as if you're relying too much upon his opinion and ideas. This can be scary for a child. Children need parents who are in control and feel comfortable being in control, because it frees them to remain children and not grow up too quickly. And while children need to feel listened to, they also need to feel safe being children. In addition, if a child feels as though his parents aren't in control, then he too, might feel out of control, and act accordingly -- by misbehaving or taking inappropriate risks.

Communication is important -- even crucial for parents and children. But reasoning, as a disciplinary tool, is extremely ineffective. In part II, we'll discuss another traditional form of discipline -- physical punishment.