Child Behavior: And the best parenting style is…?

When I speak at functions, I’m often asked questions about behavior management or discipline. “How can I get my eight-year-old to clean his room?” “How can I get my two boys to stop teasing each other?” “Breakfast is the most difficult time of the day, how can I make it easier?” 

This month, I will not give you all the answers to the questions you may have about discipline, but I will try to explain the styles of discipline that you might use and the accompanying effects each style often brings.  There are numerous books on how to discipline or behavior manage your child -- and there are some good ones out there but there are no books, or one-dimensional approaches to discipline that will fit every child in every situation. Effective discipline is an ongoing process that requires thinking, planning, patience and, above all, flexibility.

What exactly is discipline? You might make the association that discipline and punishment are synonymous. Punishment is a form of discipline and may be a component of the discipline plan in your home, but the two are not synonymous.

Discipline is a multifaceted process that you use to alter your child’s behavior or attitude. Using discipline is not meant solely to stop your child’s behavior from occurring. Instead, it is a means of educating and guiding. Helping your child learn how to behave in an acceptable manner in any social or educational setting is a necessary part of raising a child, and truly one of the arts of parenting. Punishment is just one potential tool of the disciplinary process that you can use.

Kids and their internal controls

Children will behave appropriately based on their own internal control system or through external controls imposed by someone else. A child complies with your requests because he knows that he will be rewarded or punished for his actions. This is control from outside the child. With an external control system, they comply because they have to.

A child may comply with your requests because he has internalized the values and standards for obedience and behavior that you have set for them, and have incorporated these standards and values as their own. This is control from within. With an internalized control system, your child responds appropriately to you because he wants to.

What determines how your child will react to your requests for compliance or how they will act on their own without your requests? Whether our children internalize our values and desire for compliance or respond to our requests and comply out of fear of punishment depends on how you use discipline.

Using power to control behavior

Most developmental research on discipline and behavior management suggests three types of parental disciplinary styles: Power/Control; Love Withdrawal; and Inductive Reasoning. Each of these styles and how you apply them will determine how your child will react to requests for compliance.

This discipline style uses some physical force or taking away of possessions or privileges. Children who live under the threat of physical violence or are the recipient of frequent harsh or corporal punishments are at risk for a number of behavioral and psychological problems, including conduct problems, delinquency, socialization problems and depression.

Just using rewards to control behavior falls under this category. Although using rewards is certainly more benign when it comes to side effects, rewards alone are not without their own potential pitfalls. For example, your child may only comply with people or in settings where they get the reward, and not demonstrate the desired behavior in any other setting or with anyone else where the reward is not provided. They may look at the reward as bribery for correct behavior.

Children who have an attitude of ‘if you do this I will give you something,’ often don’t develop internal controls. Instead, they stay dependent on external control systems.

Withdrawing love causes anxiety

In this style, you withhold or demonstrate a lack of love or affection or concern for your child when they act inappropriately. This style may produce appropriate behavior in your child, due to the anxiety and feelings of guilt produced in the child. However, the anxiety and guilt they feel because of the threat of losing your affection can produce serious side effects for the child. If you use this style excessively, it can cause your child to not only feel excessive guilt, but to also fear rejection, isolation, or even abandonment.

Read more about Parenting Styles.
Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.