Child Discipline: Time to Shift the Lens

The Monitor on Psychology’s October 2019 article, “Teaming Up to Change Child Discipline” described how parenting advice such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” is now debunked and outdated. This is an important shift, considering that 60% of children aged 3-4 in the US are spanked by their parents. In regards to the progress we’ve made in the parenting arena, the article cites alternative approaches including, The Incredible Years, Triple P-Positive Parenting, and “1-2-3 Magic” as more progressive. Here’s where I disagree. All of these approaches, including the publicly funded Parent- Child Interaction Training (PCIT) condone time-outs as a modern parenting disciplinary tool.

I don’t believe time-outs are progressive because we know more about human behaviors than ever before. We now know through brain and developmental science that there’s something even more foundational than teaching or discipline. It’s called emotional co-regulation. The shift I propose is understanding that emotional co-regulation (helping the child’s emotional journey causing the behavioral challenge) is the new paradigm.

While time-outs were a leap forward from corporal methods such as spanking, they rely on a false assumption: that all behaviors are motivated and incentivized and thus susceptible to teaching the child a lesson. This is a false assumption because many childhood behaviors are not the result of deliberate malintent or misbehavior, but are instinctive responses to stress. When children can’t connect to caring adults to reduce their subconscious perception of threat, they experience stress responses, which often show up as behavioral challenges.

The popular programs described in the Monitor’s article are agnostic of the powerful force of the autonomic nervous system on childhood behaviors. This popular paradigm views all behaviors as incentivized and motivated, rather than instinctual and safety-seeking. When we view behaviors from the lens of safety-seeking, we find that soothing the child through our gentle interactions (emotional co-regulation) is the answer, not issuing consequences.

The Monitor article thus fails to ask the most important question when it comes to discipline: is this a purposeful misbehavior or a response to autonomic stress? If it is a response to stress, then any technique that blames a child’s intentions—will be ineffective. The reason? All techniques that degrade the social engagement system increase autonomic distress. The parenting programs mentioned in the article suggest time-outs when a child’s behaviors increase in severity or the child doesn’t respond to positive reinforcement. On the contrary, in the shift I’m proposing, when a child’s behaviors increase in severity, that’s a sign that the child needs more engagement and not less. 

I respectfully submit that many popular “evidence-based” parenting programs are working from a simplistic model that measures compliance and other easily tested outward signs of “progress” but leave out the child’s physiology. A child may look more compliant after a time out, but will likely also be more stressed internally. 

So what can we do to update parenting practices for behavior challenges? Replace them with tools that are inclusive of the human drive to feel safe. The message for teachers, administrators, and parents: Instead of trying to extinguish unwanted behaviors, we should shift our paradigm from behavioral compliance to physiological safety. As a clinician, I have found that the subconscious perception of threat underlies most challenging behaviors, and the solution isn’t through a time-out or “counting to three,” but through social engagement.   As Alexander Van Hiejer says, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”

I share more about how we can understand and support children in my latest book, Beyond Behaviors.