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Senior Correspondent

I occasionally receive complaints from fellow mental health professionals that my approach to discipline is excessively punitive. The most recent accused me of actually recommending that 3-year-olds spend as much as a full day in their rooms for certain offenses. Said professional was horrified. She said punishment of that sort is “harsh” and does not “send positive messages.” 

To set the record straight, I have no problem assigning a 3-year-old to his room for more than one day — up to several days, in fact. During this internment, said child is allowed to join the family for meals and outings, go to preschool or school, and accompany parents on errands when he cannot be left home. Otherwise, he’s in his room, which has been stripped of “entertainment value.” To relieve his boredom, his parents put him to bed immediately after the evening meal. At bedtime, they read him a story, talk a while, and tuck him in lovingly. 

One can be reasonably certain that the room in question is heated in the winter and cooled in the summer — that it is vermin-free, contains a comfortable, clean bed, and has windows that look out on the world. I submit that this child, restricted as he may be, is still living better than most of the world’s children. In other words, this is confinement, but it is neither solitary nor “harsh.” When the door is finally opened, the child does not come stumbling out, emaciated and mumbling incoherently. 

I don’t recommend such a consequence often, but only when a young child needs (for whatever reason) a huge wake-up call — such as when a child hits or kicks a parent, for example. The unfortunate fact is that, unless a consequence instills a permanent memory, one that screams “You don’t want to go there again!” when the child is about to misbehave in a similar manner, the punishment has been for naught. 

And yes, a consequence of that sort does not send a positive message. The intent, in fact, is to send a negative message, as in “That is about as wrong as wrong can be, and I will not tolerate it ever again, under any circumstances.” 

As I pointed out in a recent column, researchers have found that parents tend to dismiss research that doesn’t confirm their parenting decisions. Apparently, that also applies to some mental health professionals. Ignoring research is forgivable in parents. In professionals, however, it is not. 

In this case, some of the best research ever done into parenting outcomes, by psychologist Diana Baumrind at the University of California, finds that parents who are nurturing and affectionate but also intolerant of misbehavior by punishing it when it occurs raise the most well-adjusted kids. I am convinced that one reason, perhaps the major reason, why so many of today’s kids misbehave in the same ways over and over again is because their parents tolerate misbehavior. When these parents do punish, they fail to employ meaningful consequences. Instead, they use fly-swatters to fend off charging elephants. The fly-swatters in question include time-out, which I have concluded works with children who are already well-behaved — kids who don’t need huge wake up calls, but only the occasional reminder. 

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