It doesn’t matter how parents raise their kids — all parents are teaching what they model. If you’re modeling loving, attached relationships, your kids are going to have the same type of relationships with their peers. If you’re modeling a parent-child relationship based on control and fear, your kids are going to have the same relationships with their peers.
I consider this pretty common sense, but what one person considers logical isn’t necessarily another person’s sensibility. That’s why there is research — to legitimize common sense.
It’s always exciting when research validates what attachment-minded mothers have long known to be true — that what and how we model relationships, including discipline, teaches our children how to resolve conflict with others.
Dr. Alan Kazdin, child psychologist and director of the Yale Parenting Center, discussed this in a recent article in The Atlantic. What sounds radical to much of mainstream America, where parents are still caught up in punishment-minded child-rearing, is something attachment-minded families have been doing for generations: no spanking, no time-out, no punishments, focusing on the parent’s role in the child’s behavior and reinforcing the child’s positive behavior.
I like how the writer of this article introduces mainstream parenting. She explains that the proportion of abusive parents in our population is really, really small — and it is, thankfully. There is also a small slice of parents who seem to have the natural gift of parenting. But the biggest chunk by far are parents caught in the middle, far from abusive but not quite mindful — busy and stressed, and uncertain of how to balance nurturing and discipline of their children.
The thing is, all parents — even the horrifically abusive ones — are doing the very best they can at the time, given the knowledge and support they have. I’ve worked with parents who are very mindful, and I’ve worked with parents who are very much the opposite, and I’ve worked with many parent in-between. There are no “bad” parents; just parents without the resources they need. Some need more resources than others.
And that’s basically what Dr. Kazdin says: How parents are raising their children depends on the knowledge and resources they have. So, a mom with postpartum depression — for example — may really struggle early on, especially if she doesn’t receive treatment, and that can set the stage for a strained parent-child relationship, but at the time, that is the very best she could do. And a dad who has an impulsive temperament may really struggle at times, too, in his reactivity toward his child, but that is the very best he can do — without learning additional parenting skills.
Dr. Kazdin explains that most parents understand that reasoning with children is important. It’s important that children know why they should or shouldn’t do something. But past that, that’s where child discipline gets sticky. That’s when the yelling and punishment comes — when the talking and reasoning doesn’t work to change behavior.
And research shows that reasoning by itself doesn’t change behavior, and neither does punishment. The research is really clear on both of these points. Even time-out isn’t going to change behavior. And don’t even bring up manipulation like “because I said so” or “you better do it now or else.”
What does the research show to change behavior? Applied behavior analysis, says Dr. Kazdin, who gives 3 steps:
- Analyzing what comes before the problem behavior
- Analyzing how you, the parent, shapes the problem behavior
- Analyzing what you do at the end.
Basically, it gets back to what positive discipline advocates have been saying for decades: that parents need to examine their own behavior and how that guides our child’s behavior, and then use other discipline techniques to teach positive conflict resolution skills, like giving our children choices, praising, playful parenting, and reinforcing the positive behavior — just the very few positive discipline options described by Dr. Kazdin. There are a lot more ideas out there than this!
And the best part is, it works for all ages of children, including teens.
From my own experience, and countless others’, going from a punishment-based parenting approach to positive discipline works. Child discipline isn’t just teaching right from wrong — it’s about modeling relationship skills. What are you teaching your children about relationships, from friendships to marriage, in how you discipline?