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Reasoning With Kids

Why reasoning works: Punishment alone won't stop the behavior in the long run.

Kid Control

Parents will probably be arguing from here to eternity over whether or not to spank misbehaving toddlers. But the age-old debate misses the point: It matters less whether you bare the rod or send Johnny to his room, says a Boys Town psychologist, than explaining why you're doing it. Even for preschool kids, it's reasoning that makes any punishment most effective.

Robert E. Larzelere, Ph.D., had 40 mothers keep a month-long record of all their toddlers' infractions, whether fighting with siblings or disobeying parents. The accuracy of the records was aided by recording devices placed (with consent) in their homes. Lafzelere and a colleague, William N. Schneider, Ph.D., calculated the time between bouts of misbehavior.

The results: Reasoning alone was equally as effective as punishment alone-whether time-out, revoking privileges, hand-slapping, or non-abusive spanking. Both kept fighting at bay for nine hours. But when reasoning was used with any kind of punishment, it more than doubled the delay between fighting episodes to 19.8 hours.

Disobedience is harder to control, the researchers reported, but again, explaining made punishment more effective. Reasoning alone deterred disobedience for about 3.76 hours, punishment 4.25 hours, and both methods together worked for 5.04 hours.

When they scrutinized by type of punishment alone, the rod got the nod over noncorporeal forms. But the longest delay of all was achieved by a combination of punishments--time-out, discipline, and a moderate spank--plus some sweet reason.

Reasoning deserves more emphasis in parent training, conclude the researchers. Once kids learn to speak, they start developing their own rules to govern their behavior. The use of reasoning with discipline fosters such development.