Does Grounding Really Work?

Does Grounding Really Work?

As I trot through my parenting experience, I keep running into a wall constructed entirely of things my parents tried that didn't work.

Grounding, for example, was totally ineffective on me. For one, I was a social dork. How can you tell a child she can't do anything for two weeks when she doesn’t have any plans for the next two weeks anyway?

For another thing, it didn't work as intended. Losing privileges didn't make me rethink my actions and plan differently for the future--it just made me write angry poetry and wish more fervently that Jim Morrison would return from being fake-dead and take me away from all this.


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It's easy to take potshots at our parents, but it's also true that when we remember things we wish they'd done differently, it's an opportunity to fine-tune our own approach.

I always assumed that my uneasy relationship with discipline and cash was a sign of some kind of undiagnosed disorder, but it turns out I'm right in line with psychologists' understanding of how kids' minds work, and the proper way to both discipline kids and educate them about money today.

So, Does Grounding Really Work?

"What's the goal when you discipline a child?" asks Edward R. Christophersen, Ph.D., staff psychologist at The Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and author of “Parenting That Works." Whatever you choose as your punishment--yelling, shaming, isolating--"models that same behavior for the kids, and we've known--for more than 30 years--that it doesn't have the effect we hope it will," he says.

In other words, the harsher the punishment, the less the lesson is internalized, and the more the child learns to do as you do, not as you say.

Instead, "the most effective way of changing behavior is modeling behavior," Dr. Christophersen adds, and no matter how I phrased the question, his answer was, "spend time with your children and do unto them as you'd have them do unto you."


How to Do That

Dr. Christophersen described a situation with a friend of his whose son got busted for skipping classes at school. "He called me and already had a list of things he was going to do and say to him,” said Dr. Christophersen. “I suggested, instead, that he back up the school in its consequences, but that emotionally he be there for his son and support him."

Grounding, punishing and angry responses effectively abandon kids at just the moment when they're vulnerable enough to need you. What was going on that led the kid to skip classes? You can't find out while yelling. It's similar to the way that when a preschooler doesn't heed your warning not to jump on the couch and bonks his head, the prevailing wisdom says the most effective way to get the message across is not to immediately say, "Well, I told you that was gonna happen." Instead, you should be there for your kid, soothe his bonked head and then, when things are calm, bring up the broken rule that led to the injury.

"People put too much emphasis on reward and punishment, and not enough on the whole parenting picture," says Dr. Christophersen. "Grounding and punishment teaches kids to coerce their parents, because the kids are watching their parents try to coerce them."

Again: Kids do as you do, not as you say, and spending time with them, living out the values you espouse, is going to be the most effective discipline tool.

How Money Fits In

As for paying children for good grades, or fining them for bad behavior, Dr. Christopherson says, "when money enters the discipline equation, kids learn to almost despise it, because there is no predictability."

When you yell, they learn the skill of yelling. When you pay them for something they should do anyway, they learn the skill of trying to finagle money out of someone.

"Money should not be involved in discipline for kids," adds Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of "The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child". "All that teaches is lust for money. It doesn't teach values, character or self-control."

A more effective tool, she says, is a relationship-based reward--"Dad'll take you to the cafe when you're done!"

Dr. Christopherson also recommends "job grounding." So for example, when a child breaks a rule, he or she gets a job card, something the family works out ahead of time with clear rules and expectations, and nothing else can happen until the job is done. It's not a protracted amount of time; it might only be 15 minutes, and "the beauty of it is that a kid can be 'grounded' three times in one day," says Dr. Chirstopherson. Because the reaction is immediate and understandable, it's more effective than nagging, shaming or punishing.

So if I'd just been given job cards instead of being banished to my room, I'd have spent fewer hours of my life fixated on Jim Morrison?

Well, maybe.


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