I consistently appreciate the articles from the Institute for Family Studies, but the recent blog post against using time-out for children by Justin Coulson, Ph.D. represents only one side of an ongoing scientific debate. To be sure, the positive parenting view that parents should only rely on positive methods and never use negative disciplinary consequences is a growing trend in popular parenting books and blogs, such as Dr. Coulson’s. But I take issue with his near-absolute opposition to all negative disciplinary consequences, which lacks adequate scientific support.1
There is an unresolved disagreement between the two major scientific literatures on parental discipline, which roughly aligns with typical child development on the one hand (e.g., Division 7 of the American Psychological Association [APA] and the Society for Research on Child Development), and clinical child psychology on the other (e.g., Division 53 of the APA, the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry [AACAP]). The two sides complement each other in many ways. However, they also recommend different disciplinary responses for noncompliance and often denigrate the responses recommended by the other camp.
In his recent blog post, Dr. Coulson cites a popular book, No-Drama Discipline,2 whose authors published a similar diatribe against time-out when their book came out in 2014. The clinical child division of APA responded with a letter of protest. According to the APA’s scientific standards, every parent-implemented treatment that is effective for ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Conduct Disorder features time-out as the key response to noncompliance (along with positive responses to appropriate behavior).3 Medical societies, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the AACAP, also list behavioral treatments (usually including timeout) as the only non-medication treatment that is scientifically supported for treating ADHD.
Of course, it would be nice if parents could avoid all negative consequences in disciplining and training their children, as positive parenting proponents recommend. Indeed, both parents and professionals should prefer positive discipline methods whenever appropriate. But opposing all negative consequences for all children all of the time is an unrealistic ideal for most parents—an ideal that has no adequate scientific support as an absolute for all children.
Parents should combine the best of both parental discipline techniques. This includes using the methods advocated by positive parenting proponents like Dr. Coulson. Authoritative parents do that by maintaining a positive relationship with their children, using give-and-take communication, and encouraging age-appropriate independence and autonomy.4 But they combine those positive parenting methods with firm control. Diana Baumrind of Cal-Berkeley and I have shown in our research that this authoritative combination during preschool has optimal 10-year outcomes in children.5 Yes, the worst outcomes were for the type of authoritarian parenting that Dr. Coulson opposes, which can be defined as strict enforcement without love. But the second-worst 10-year outcomes were for overly permissive parents, who emphasized a positive relationship and children’s independent autonomy, but did not set and enforce appropriate limits and did not require age-appropriate maturity (e.g., helping with chores).
Opposing all negative consequences for all children all of the time is an unrealistic ideal for most parents.
So, parents should try all of the positive methods recommended by advocates of positive parenting. But when/if their children start acting like the oppositional-defiant children whose parents come to clinical child therapists for help, they need to use the mildest negative disciplinary consequence to restore appropriate cooperation. Time-out is ideally suited for this purpose most of the time.
My own research has been focused on combining the best of both parental discipline perspectives for the past 30 years. One early finding was that the type of age-appropriate reasoning recommended by Dr. Coulson works for children as young as 2 or 3, but only when mothers enforce it with techniques like time-out at least 10 percent of the time.6 More recently, we found that parents of toddlers should follow Dr. Coulson’s advice when their toddlers are trying to negotiate with them (including whining, which is often how toddlers negotiate).7 Distraction, suggesting an acceptable compromise, and reasoning worked best—both immediately and long-term. Threats and time-out were the least effective disciplinary responses for those toddlers.
However, the results differed when toddlers were oppositional or defiant or hitting. Distracting them or finding an appropriate compromise was still the most effective way to de-escalate the episode immediately, with no downside long-term except when used over 30 percent of the time. If defiant children always insist on a compromise, they never learn to cooperate with others around them. Whereas time-out and time-out warnings were the least effective techniques for negotiating toddlers, they were the second most effective technique for defiant toddlers. Moreover, such negative consequences improved toddler behavior later, as long as these consequences were not used more than one-sixth of the time.
The effects of reasoning were mixed for defiant toddlers. It was the least effective way to stop a misbehavior episode when toddlers were defiant, yet frequent reasoning improved defiant children’s behavior later on. How can parents put those contradictory results together when dealing with defiance? I think the key comes from our earlier study, which found that reasoning with preschoolers is useful for teaching them even when it fails to resolve the discipline episode immediately. By enforcing age-appropriate reasoning with mild negative disciplinary consequences, such as time-out, even defiant toddlers learn to pay attention to the teaching part of discipline eventually. However, if reasoning is never backed up with any negative consequences, defiant toddlers learn to tune out the parent instead.
Our society seems to polarize all controversial issues to ridiculous extremes, but our children should not be victimized by this polarization. Parents should not have to choose between competing extremes that emphasize either exclusively positive methods on the one hand, or an over-reliance on strict discipline on the other. Instead, parents should be able to choose from the full range of nonabusive disciplinary methods to determine the best way to respond to every situation that comes up in the important task of helping their children achieve their full potential in life.
Robert E. Larzelere is the Endowed Professor of Parenting in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Oklahoma State University. His 100-plus publications include Authoritative Parenting (APA Press, 2013), which features contributions from Dr. Diana Baumrind and 26 other parenting experts.
1. Larzelere RE, Gunnoe ML, Roberts MW, Ferguson CJ, “Children and parents deserve better parental discipline research: Critiquing the evidence for exclusively ‘positive’ parenting, ” Marriage & Family Review, 2016.
2. Siegel DJ, Bryson TP, No-drama discipline. (Los Angeles: Mind Your Brain, Inc., 2014).
3. Eyberg SM, Nelson MM, Boggs SR, “Evidence-based psychosocial treatments for children and adolescents with disruptive behavior.” Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. 37 (2008): 215-237. See also: Pelham WE, Jr., Fabiano GA. “Evidence-based psychosocial treatments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,” Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 37 (2008): 184-214.
4. Larzelere RE, Morris AS, Harrist AW, eds. Authoritative parenting: Synthesizing nurturance and discipline for optimal child development, (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press, 2013).
5. Baumrind D, Larzelere RE, Owens EB, “Effects of preschool parents’ power assertive patterns and practices on adolescent development,” Parenting: Science and Practice, 10 (2010):157-201.
6. Larzelere RE, Sather PR, Schneider WN, Larson DB, Pike PL, “Punishment enhances reasoning’s effectiveness as a disciplinary response to toddlers,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60 (1998): 388-403.
7. Larzelere RE, Knowles SJ, “Toddlers need both positive parenting and consistent consequences from mothers,” Paper presented at the Annual conference of the American Psychological Association, 2015. See also: ABC News, “Timeouts for Toddlers: New Parenting Study Has Surprising Results,” Good Morning America, 2015.