COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Expressing disappointment, rather than using excessive punishment, may be the most beneficial way for parents to react to kids' bad behavior, a new study suggests.
Researchers found strong benefits to disciplining children by using statements such as "I would never expect you to do something like that." Sixth and seventh graders whose parents often used such a discipline technique were rated as more helpful by teachers and, when given the opportunity, made bigger donations to a charity.
"Parents who use statements of disappointment in discipline situations are telling their children that they can do better," said John Gibbs, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and co-author of the study.
Co-author Julie Krevans added that "parental disappointment cultivates a child's empathy and induces a pro-social self-concept."
Parental disappointment was distinguished from love withdrawal, which did not have a beneficial effect. Love withdrawal implies rejection of the child and could include statements such as "I'm ashamed to have a child like you."
Krevans, an assistant professor of psychology at Cuyahoga Community College, conducted the research at Ohio State as part of her doctoral dissertation under Gibbs' direction. The results were published in a recent issue of the journal Child Development.
The researchers studied 78 sixth and seventh graders in northeastern Ohio. The goal was to find out how different kinds of discipline affected children's empathy and prosocial behavior.
The researchers identified discipline techniques by asking mothers of children in the study how they and the child's other parent would react to various kinds of misbehavior. The children were also asked how they thought their parents would react.
Several different measures were used to indicate the children's level of empathy -- their awareness of other people's feelings and perspectives.
To gauge prosocial behavior, the researchers used five different measures, including one in which teachers of children in the study rated the likelihood that the kids would help another student in specific situations. In another measure of prosocial behavior, children were given 10 dimes and later offered the opportunity to donate some or all of it to a charity. The donations were supposedly anonymous, but the researchers counted how much each child in the study gave.
The findings showed the best results for children whose parents most often used inductive discipline -- a type of discipline in which parents ask children to behave in a better fashion, and explain the negative consequences of their misbehavior for others. Statements of disappointment are one kind of inductive discipline, the researchers said.
Children whose parents relied on inductive discipline showed higher levels of empathy, which the researchers found was also related to more helpful behavior.
"We call it inductive discipline because it means trying to induce in a child an awareness of why their behavior was wrong, and how it has harmed others," Gibbs said.
"The important thing about inductive discipline is that it builds children's empathy, and empathy leads to more helpful behavior," according to Krevans. "If you appeal to the best in your children when you discipline them, it's going to have the best outcome."
Statements of disappointment were found to be especially strongly related to prosocial behavior in children. "We believe disappointment can help instill an altruistic self-concept in children," Krevans said.
Children whose parents relied heavily on power-assertive discipline did not show as high levels of prosocial behavior. Power-assertive discipline may include taking away privileges or physical punishments like spanking.
However, the results don't mean that parents should never assert power while disciplining their children, the researchers said. Successful parents use both discipline techniques, relying more on inductive discipline but knowing how and when to assert their power as parents.
"Parents who successfully use inductive discipline are not pushovers," Gibbs said. "Parents have to be assertive enough so that their children take them seriously, but not use so much power that the child is too upset to listen."
Krevans said the results suggest that using disappointment and other forms of inductive discipline can reap benefits for children and society.
"Appealing to the good things in children, like their empathy, seems to be very effective in promoting helpful and kind behavior," she said.
Contact: John Gibbs, (614) 292-7918;
Julia Krevans, (216) 381-5014
Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

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