Psychology of Childhood Discipline

Does sparing the rod mean spoiling the child?

The Role of Discipline: Developing Moral Behaviors

As your toddler transitions into early childhood, between ages two and three, they will begin to develop their own sense of values. This moral foundation, as well as future behavior patterns, will be directly influenced by the manner and consistency with which you, as caregivers, choose to administer discipline. Any earnest caregiver should seek to develop positive, socially-accepted behavior patterns using methods that also consider the child's physical and emotional well-being. Moreover, effective disciplinary techniques should foster the development of independent self-regulation over time. Therefore, it is imperative that caregivers consider current evidence regarding emotional & behavioral outcomes for certain types of childhood discipline strategies.

Negative Discipline

Consider the images below. Harsh, punitive discipline is often reliant on the threat or use of physical force and has been correlated with the development of aggressive and antisocial behaviors. Often, caregivers who support the use of harsh punishment point to its efficacy in immediately altering behavior. However, there is a large body of evidence that suggests these tactics fall short of developing independent capacity for moral reasoning in later childhood. In fact, children whose misbehavior is frequently met with harsh punishment have been shown to be more likely to develop egoistic, anti-social, and aggressive behavioral tendencies.

It is important that we take a moment to recognize the difference between the use of physical control to address a possibly life-threatening behavior and recurrent physical punishment. Pulling your child away from a dangerous aspect of the environment, an open flame, an on-coming vehicle, etc., is a very different from patterned spanking for inconsiderate language or behavior. The former is intended to save your child from permanent trauma, the latter naively seeks to develop moral reasoning by causing transient physical/emotional pain.

Some caregivers willingly admit that harsh punishment carries the potential for overuse/abuse. However, they often claim that harsh reprimanding--especially corporal punishment--is occasionally necessary. However, evidence has shown that caregivers who administer even moderate levels of corporal punishment trend towards more frequent usage throughout early childhood.

Positive Discipline

Take a moment to compare the gallery below to the one above. What do you notice about the emotional state of the children and their caregivers? The characteristic lack of emotional distress should be easily discernible. Positive forms of punishment, like the ones listed below, focus on rational explanation of cause and effect. These forms of punishment also allow children the opportunity for quiet reflection which, in turn, develops emotional self-regulation and desirable decision making behaviors in the future. Perhaps most importantly, positive forms of discipline do not require any significant interruption of parental affection. In fact, positive discipline requires an intimate level of child-caregiver interaction that is generally absent during harsher, negative forms of punishment. Caregivers are required to address misbehavior in a manner that is congruent with the childhood values and sense-of-self. Parents often sit or kneel in order to avoid expressing their physical dominance. Consequences and future expectations are then discussed rationally and the child is often given quiet time to consider the potential lessons that can be gleaned for a given experience. Punishment can take the form of privilege withdrawal, time-out, or prompted apology via inductive discipline. Additionally, parents must diligently give praise and reward for positive social & emotional behaviors.

These forms of positive discipline have been correlated with improved social skills, improved parental obedience, empathetic concern for the well-being of others, and a stronger commitment to interpersonal relationships. The key to this success is consistency. Please, take a moment to view the video below to see a great example of positive parental discipline that is consistently applied.

Positive Discipline in Action

Be Consistent With Early Childhood Discipline


  • Lansford, Jennifer E., Michael M. Criss, Kenneth A. Dodge, Daniel S. Shaw, Gregory S. Pettit, and John E. Bates. "Trajectories of Physical Discipline: Early Childhood Antecedents and Developmental Outcomes." Child Development 80.5 (2009): 1385-402. Web.
  • Berk, Laura E. Development through the Lifespan. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2007. Print.