By Dr Benjamin Spock updated by Dr Robert Needlman
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Many good parents feel that they have to punish their children once in a while. But other parents find that they can successfully manage without ever having to punish. A lot depends on how the parents were brought up.

If parents were punished occasionally for good cause, they naturally expect to have to punish in similar situations. And if they were kept in line by positive guidance alone, they are apt to find that they can do the same with their children.

On the other hand, there are also a fair number of poorly behaved children. The parents of some of them punish a lot, and the parents of others never do. So we can’t say either that punishment always works or that lack of it always works. It all depends on the nature of the parents’ discipline in general.

Punishment – not the key to discipline

Before we go further with the subject of punishment, we ought to realise that it is never the key part of discipline. It’s only a vigorous reminder that the parents feel strongly about what they say. We have all seen children who were slapped and spanked and deprived plenty, and yet remained ill-behaved.

The main source of good discipline is growing up in a loving family – being loved and learning to love in return.

We want to be kind and cooperative (most of the time) because we like people and want them to like us. (Habitual criminals are people who in childhood were never loved enough to make much difference to them. Many of them were also abused or were witnesses to significant violence and turmoil.)

Children gradually lessen their grabbing and begin to share, somewhere around the age of three, not primarily because they are reminded by their parents (though that may help some), but because their feelings toward other children – of enjoyment and affection – have developed sufficiently.

Another vital element is children’s intense desire to be as much like their parents as possible. Children work particularly hard at being polite and civilised and responsible around the ages of 3-6. They pretend very seriously to take care of their doll children, keep house and go out to work, as they see their parents do.

Firmness and consistency

The everyday job of the parent is to keep the child on the right track by means of firmness and consistency.

Though children do the major share in civilising themselves, through love and imitation, there still is plenty of work left for parents to do.

It’s a bit like a car. The child supplies the power but the parents have to do the steering. Some children are more challenging than others – they may be more active, impulsive, and stubborn than most – and it takes more energy to keep them on the right track.

For most children, most of the time, a disapproving glance or word from a parent is enough to steer the child back on the right track. A small percentage of children are so very impulsive, and so under-responsive to the usual messages from parents, that even very good parents feel ineffective, frustrated, and angry.

Some of these children will have a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a related condition.

Children’s motives are good (most of the time), but they don’t have the experience or the stability to stay on the road. The parents have to be saying, ‘We hold hands when we cross the street’, ‘You can't play with that. It might hurt someone’, ‘Say thank you to Mrs Griffin’, ‘Let’s go in now, because there is a surprise for lunch’, ‘We have to leave the toy here because it belongs to Harry and he wants it’, ‘It's time to go to bed so you'll grow big and strong’, and so on and on.

  • Last updated or reviewed 13-09-2009