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The Big Answer

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The Discipline Controversy Revisited

an article by Diana Baumrind

(our site's article review)

Although useful in that it once more validated the negative results of permissive and authoritarian parenting and the positive results of authoritative parenting, the article, published in the October 1996 issue of Family Relations, was disappointing at best, and incorporated little if any of the new knowledge acquired in the various sciences that have proven the negative effects of punishment in general, and especially corporal punishment. The lack of insight in this article is shocking because it’s from a researcher—Diana Baumrind—who has had plenty of time to grasp holistically the significance of the totality of research done in the sciences about both the areas of parenting and discipline methods.

The four most important facts learned in these areas are parent-child bonding necessity, which she acknowledges; the disadvantages of steep-gradient nurturing as compared to flat-gradient nurturing, which she ignores; the advantages of nonpunitive, democratic, win-win parenting over punitive styles of parenting, which she also ignores; and the great advantages of authoritative over other parenting types, for which she more than anyone else on our planet gets most of the credit. She early on (the 60s) recognized the importance of contrasting the results of authoritarian, permissive and authoritative parenting, and she learned all about why the only smart way for parents to parent kids is with authoritative parenting. It was she who pioneered this area and turned others on to it. All subsequent research from others as well as further research by Baumrind has only served to validate her claims in favor of authoritative parenting and against permissive and authoritarian parenting.

And yet, unlike many if not most of the scholars, writers and educators who have learned from her findings and gone on to advocate authoritative parenting, she continues to push punishment as an important part of the authoritative formula. Others such as George Lakoff, Morton Hunt, Louise Hart and Thomas Gordon have seen the value of her work and cited it as important—omiting her punishment nonsense. Interestingly enough, Hunt lists the ineffectiveness of punishment (especially compared to induction, as in P.E.T.) and the advantages of authoritative over other types of parenting as two of the most enduring and important findings of decades of research about parenting.

None of the four people listed above find punishment as an asset to authoritative discipline; all consider it a bad idea. This leaves us with the distinct impression that Baumrind’s persistent, regressive inclusion of it in the authoritative parenting method must be more related to the polarizing effects of the Culture War than to the rigors of objective science. With the age-old adages “children must be controlled” and “errant children must be punished” permanently installed in the minds of most of her generation, she probably has trouble hearing about empowering children to learn self-control and to learn via natural and nonpunitive logical consequences rather than punishment. She gives these ideas plenty of lip service, but still manages to find her way back to the punishment strategy.

Baumrind’s inclusion of punishment in 'authoritative' parenting must be related to the Culture War
Baumrind’s inclusion of punishment in 'authoritative' parenting must be related to the Culture War

People who have seriously tested nonpunitive, democratic parenting methods will find that they work better than punitive ways, and people who hang on to punitive methods do so because they’ve never given nonpunitive methods a decent chance in their own lives. It isn’t as though one can suddenly remove punishment from parenting and expect this reductionistic step to bear fruit (and when a couple of experiments go nowhere, declare that “this proves that punishment was the right way all along”). Life simply doesn’t work that way. The needed step is to incorporate a proven successful system of nonpunitive parenting such as Winning Family Lifeskills and/or P.E.T. and to replace obsolete communication, relationship and parenting habits with the tried and true methods that have been succeeding for millions of families all over the world for decades.

It is quite telling that she’s never so much as acknowledged the existence of most of these methods. Sometimes one learns more about someone by what they don’t say than by what they do say. She runs through a litany of discipline-relevant concepts, giving findings and her take. Cognitive theory’s positive self-talk, which helps counteract conditioned negative self-talk, is rightfully acknowledged.

In some discussions of discipline in this article and elsewhere, she implies that her idea of punishment is consequence training—natural or logical. But then she turns around and says things like: “Because children’s wishes often conflict with those of their caregivers, the notion that children can or should be raised without using aversive discipline is utopian.” She says that arbitrary reliance on aversive discipline is what harms children, but that judicious use of it is good for them.

She uses the words comply and compliance more than Seven of Nine did on the Star Trek: Voyager show (and we all know that resistance [to compliance] is futile!). This exposes a bias towards win-lose power trips. In spite of presenting the advantages of win-win reciprocity, she continues to push win-lose agendas and seems blind to the way in which this contradicts some of her other conclusions. She disdains a primary reliance on physical punishment but sees no harm in occasional spankings as long as they’re non-abusive. In spite of a ton of evidence from every conceivable science that physical violence is a bad parenting idea and creates more problems than it solves in the long run, she’s decided to ignore the evidence and stay with the beliefs she’s comfortable with. Generation gap? Retirement time?

Win-lose power trips infest her writings like a bad case of fleas
Win-lose power trips infest her writings like a bad case of fleas

She—unfortunately—says that: “. . . the use of a reason without a display of power signals to the child that the parent is indecisive about requiring compliance. By being paired with punishment, reasoning becomes a discriminative stimulus that noncompliance will be punished.” This may be good behaviorism, but most sophisticated parenting experts have abandoned this primitive approach to human behavior years ago, because they have found out that there are better, proven ways to discipline without reward and punishment crudities.

When a child’s behavior is problematic, she recommends “direct power assertion that suffices to control the child’s behavior and is preceded by an explanation.” Better methods from the best parenting experts recommend I-statements that let the child understand the negative effects of his behavior so the child can choose to “take it elsewhere” because of empathy for the feelings and comfort of others. The natural consequence for the child is seeing a caretaker feeling uncomfortable because of his misbehavior and perhaps feeling selfish or insensitive for doing it. A nonpunitive logical consequence may even be needed that transforms the win-lose situation into a win-win one or at least a learning situation in which what is learned isn’t about who’s got the power, but how people can coexist together in harmony, with mutual respect and reciprocity. Such an environment truly reflects all members of a family finding out that the Golden Rule isn’t “he who has the gold makes the rules,” but “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

The Golden Rule isn’t 'he who has the gold makes the rules,' but 'do unto others as you would have others do unto you'
The Golden Rule isn’t 'he who has the gold makes the rules,' but 'do unto others as you would have others do unto you'

People want their needs met so if others commit to your needs being met, you’ll want to commit to theirs getting met, and the reciprocity turns out to be far superior to power trips, because the motivation directly connects to what each person wants and needs, so s/he will be very motivated to avoid stepping upon other’s need fulfillment because s/he has a very strong, intrinsic desire to avoid other’s stepping on his/her need fulfillment. It’s hard to get a better and more pure source of motivation than that!

It seems obvious that the best parenting experts avoided the divisive, polarizing effects of the Culture War, and used the best of Baumrind’s knowledge as a foundation to build on. But they also went beyond her, and were willing to go along with her best work but not buy into her punitiveness-supporting belief systems. This wise exercise of discriminatory powers has been a source of benevolent transformation in the parenting agendas of many experts, who could have bought every item on the Baumrind shelf wholesale—much to the detriment of millions of innocent children, but who chose instead to realize that in a world where violence is far too common and dangerous, and where children learn mostly by parental example, it was and is up to them to make sure that as many children as possible get nonviolent and non-power-trip examples to emulate, and that as many children as possible receive the benefit of the knowledge and wisdom of all the sociological and psychological sciences, rather than just the biased ideas germinated from part of the knowledge of a couple of the sciences.