Bryan Caplan  

Discipline: Advice and Evidence

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Here's an excerpt on discipline (plus academic references) from Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. 


If parents want a happier life, they need to rethink the justification for discipline. The welfare of the child is one legitimate goal.  If your toddler runs into the street, zero-tolerance really is for his own good. But the child's welfare is only the beginning. Another legitimate function of discipline is to keep the child from abusing the people around him - and no one is more susceptible to a child's abuse than his own parents. Your kid knows where you live. You're stuck with him, and he knows it. He also knows that you love him, so you're inclined to forgive him his trespasses. Armed with these advantages, your child can make your life awful - unless you stand up for yourself.

The smart adjustment to make is just the wisdom of the ages: Clarity, Consistency, and Consequences. Adopt firm rules, clearly explain the penalties for breaking the rules, and impose promised penalties to the letter. If your child punches or kicks you, you've got to tell your child that this is against the rules, and that the punishment for transgression is, say, one day without television. Every time your child breaks the rule, harden your heart and impose the punishment. Clear, consistent punishment isn't foolproof, and some kids are tougher to crack than others, but it beats being a punching bag.

If you're skeptical of the wisdom of the ages, there is solid experimental evidence in its favor. When parents ask psychologists to help control their children's disobedience, tantrums, and aggression, psychologists often respond by training the parents.They call it "behavioral parent training," but it's Clarity, Consistency, and Consequences by another name.[i] Researchers have run dozens of experiments to see whether behavioral parent training actually works. It does. Suppose you have a list of parents who want help with their problem children. You randomly train some, and leave the rest on a waiting list. Experiments typically find that the average child of the trained parents behaves better than 80% of the children of the parents on the wait list. [ii] The main weakness of behavioral parent therapy is parental backsliding: Once parents tire of Clarity, Consistency, and Consequences, their kids go back to their old tricks.[iii] Discipline is like dieting: It works when tried.

When you're trying to improve your kid's behavior, other authorities - teachers, grandparents, nannies, and so on - often frustrate you by undermining your rules. What good is it to practice the Three C's if no one else does? Selfishly speaking: Plenty of good. Kids quickly discover that different people have different rules. If the typical teenager treated his friends the way he treats his parents, he wouldn't have any friends. A central criticism of behavioral parent therapy is that it "only" improves children's behavior in the home.[iv] But an optimist would draw a different lesson: Parental discipline is enough to make children treat their parents decently. If other authorities in your child's life have lower standards, that's largely their problem.


[i] "They call it "behavioral parent training..." See Anne Shaffer et al, "The Past, Present, and Future of Behavioral Parent Training: Interventions for Child and Adolescent Problem Behavior." Behavioral Analyst Today 2001; Michelle Wierson and Rex Forehand, "Parent Behavioral Training for Child Noncompliance: Rationale, Concepts, and Effectiveness." Current Directions in Psychological Science 1994; and Anthony Graziano and David Diament, "Parent Behavioral Training: An Examination of the Paradigm." Behavioral Modification 1992.

[ii] "Experiments typically find that the average child of the trained parents behaves better than 80% of the children of the parents on the wait list." Wendy Serketish and Jean Dumas, "The Effectiveness of Behavioral Parent Training to Modify Antisocial Behavior in Children." Behavior Therapy 1996, p.178. See also Sheila Eyberg et al, "Evidence-Based Psychosocial Treatments for Children and Adolescents With Disruptive Behavior." Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology 2008.

[iii] "The main weakness of behavioral parent therapy seems to be parental backsliding..." Shaffer et al, "The Past, Present, and Future of Behavioral Parent Training."

[iv] " A central criticism of behavioral parent therapy is that it 'only' improves children's behavior in the home." See e.g. Judith Harris, No Two Alike. W.W. Norton and Company 2006, pp.130-5.


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The author at Fahreunblog in a related article titled Caplan vs. Diana writes:
    Reduce dall' ultimo combattimento... ... Caplan si trova ora di fronte un avversario ben piĆ¹ temibile che lo fronteggia portandolo fuori dal suo terreno... I fatti. Il giovane professore ha recentemente anticipato uno stralcio del libro in uscita ch [Tracked on August 23, 2010 1:30 AM]
COMMENTS (22 to date)
Hyena writes:

This is excellent advice.

Lee Kelly writes:

In other words, do like Super Nanny.

Steve Sailer writes:

Thanks.

I would add that it's important to get your kid out of the house as much as possible, out somewhere else under the authority of other adults. Have him go hang around his best friend's house, put him on a baseball team, send him to Scout camp.

Bob Murphy writes:

I still don't get it, Bryan. Your big thing is that "parents don't matter," right?

So how does this post (with which I totally agree) fit in with that? Are you saying two kids won't have significantly different life trajectories, if one has been disciplined whereas the other hasn't?

Michael writes:

> If the typical teenager treated his friends the way he treats his parents, he wouldn't have any friends.

It occurs to me (and I realize I'm grinding an axe on another topic) that if the typical parent treated his friends the way he treats his teenage children, he wouldn't have any friends either.

Troy Camplin writes:

Sounds exactly right to me. I use this with my children.

Please note that "discipline" and "disciple" have the same root. A message for educators.

diana writes:

wisdom of the ages? harden your heart and impose the punishment? You mean a child would kick and punch his parent just for fun, or by default, unless you don't stop him?
Oh, well.

You don't need to be coached by psychologists (I agree with you about that) to ask yourself whether you, as a parent, maybe part of the problem. It will probably take a little extra-time and thinking in the short-run. But it might save you a lot more time and work in the long-run.
Time that can be capitalized and treasured by all - economically speaking.

Also, I think Bob Murphy (and Michael too) makes a very good point. Yeah, if parents don't matter why bother? And if other authorities do matter (as you wrote somewhere else, about other influences on children), why not bother?

diana
roma, Italia

Hyena writes:

I suspect, at some levels, research showing the irrelevance of parenting is really just measuring the fact that most parents treat their kids the same.

I would say the same for schooling, too. We don't know much about how to educate people, and our best evidence really is the paucity of scientifically driven experiments in education, the research just as certainly says that as anything.

Curunir writes:
I still don't get it, Bryan. Your big thing is that "parents don't matter," right?

So how does this post (with which I totally agree) fit in with that? Are you saying two kids won't have significantly different life trajectories, if one has been disciplined whereas the other hasn't?

I think Bryan explained this right in the post. As he sees it, the point of discipline isn't to make your kids more successful once they leave the house, because you can't. As he once put it, "Instead of thinking of kids as lumps of clay that parents 'mold,' we should think of kids as plastic that flexes in response to pressure - and springs back to its original shape once the pressure goes away."

What you can do is make your life easier. I'm not a parent, but I imagine it's light-years easier living with a well-behaved child than an undisciplined one. And parents welfare matters too. It's a real mistake to think that just because something doesn't change a kid's long-term trajectory, it's irrelevant.

So discipline the kids. It does nothing for them, but makes your life better. And you shouldn't feel the least bit guilty about that.

David J. Balan writes:

I have trouble with the idea that the right way for parents to teach kids right from wrong, or even for parents to protect themselves from abuse at the hands of their kids, is by using the methods that Bryan describes. This seems much more like training than like education. Far preferable is to try to get the kid to actually buy into the idea that there are some things that are wrong and shouldn't be done, rather than merely conditioning desired behavior via superior parental power.

I'm not so naive as to think that this will always work, or that "training" will never be necessary. But in my view it should be thought of as an occasional concession to an unfortunate reality, and certainly shouldn't be held up as an ideal.

Some more parenting thoughts here:

http://lesswrong.com/lw/1ds/our_house_my_rules/

Loof writes:

"Instead of thinking of kids as lumps of clay that parents 'mold,' we should think of kids as plastic that flexes in response to pressure - and springs back to its original shape once the pressure goes away."

A former schoolyard bully once came up to me as an adult and thanked me for changing his life, which moved him from being a bully to being sporting. At the time when teachers (and parent volunteers) were on the playground the bullies were plastic and bounced back into negative behavior sans supervision. When asked to look at this bully problem, I re-molded their behavior playing soccer with a twist, with no supervision, no referees. If Bryan wants to know how, he can ask.

Michael writes:

Loof, I want to know how! You can't just mention you have The Secret To End Bullying Forever and then not say what it is.

diana writes:

yes, please Loof, can you tell us about soccer with a twist (though as an Italian I probably should know)?
It sounds great.
diana

p.s. for the humour section, I suggest reading Amazon's entry for "Dare to Discipline", by James Dobson. And the wonderful users comments. One is titled: "Thank you Mr Delusional". It goes like: "My father used Dobson's methodology as a license to strike" , and basically concludes that if you wish to die alone in a nursing home, go on and follow Dobson's wisdom of ages.

I remember a conversation on parenting (2007, somewhere in this same blog), where Caplan would object to Levitt's "liberal" pedagogy (I want my kids to do what I tell them to do, the minute I tell them; I don't want them to become sissies, and all that "we'll smok'em out" narrative), with a more consistently libertarian stance. Someone commented his kids are amongs the best-behaved he had met, and someone else commented the best thing would be having Caplan and Levitt as gay dads.
Caplan was amazing, then.

About the smok'em out, apocalyptic narrative of children as little killers come to this world to make parents' life hell(like Sowell's "children are barbarians to civilize before it is too late"), or clay to mould, plastic to flex, and so on, I think it is all misleading. I am often amazed how sensible, trustworthy and cooperative children are, compared to adults.
diana

Troy Camplin writes:

Diana must not have children. Otherwise she wouldn't think such romantic thoughts about children as to believe they don't kick and hit and scream unless the parent isn't raising them right. I suppose she also thinks they don't know how to lie until they are corrupted by society. Someone needs to put down the Rousseau. My real child lied to me when she was 2 about knocking on a door, even though she wasn't going to get in trouble for it, and she had no reason to believe she was going to. Why? Who knows? Because children lie. She had it in her head that there was a reason to do so, and so she did.

diana writes:

ok, I'll put down the rousseau, you're right.
It's down.

While researching the subject, I once came across a site - Taking Children Seriously, TCS - where two libertarians (Sarah Fitz-Claridge and David Deutsch, the physicist) suggested an interesting approach to parenting. Sounded down to earth enough to me, Sarah is the mother of three by the way.

Someone, I think his name was Gil, mentioned it in the Caplan vs Levitt 2007 thread on this blog, but the site hasn't been online for a while now. So, who knows.
diana

Michael writes:

> My real child lied to me when she was 2 about knocking on a door, even though she wasn't going to get in trouble for it, and she had no reason to believe she was going to. Why? Who knows? Because children lie. She had it in her head that there was a reason to do so, and so she did.

In his book on evolutionary psychology, Robert Wright offers an explanation of why children lie. He says humans have evolved to begin practicing deception at a young age, because deception is an important life skill and we need to learn when lies are advantageous and when they're disadvantageous:

"Childhood lies are not just a phase of harmless delinquency we pass smoothly through, but the first in a series of test runs for self-serving dishonesty. Through positive reinforcement (for undetected and fruitful lies) and negative reinforcement (for lies that peers uncover, or through the reprimand of kin) we learn what we can and can't get away with, and what our kin do and don't consider judicious deceit."

Michael writes:

I forgot to mention the title of that book, in case anyone wanted it: The Moral Animal by Robert Wright.

Tracy W writes:

David J. Balan, how do you get kids to buy into that idea? I thought the one big result of ethical philosophy, after thousands of years of effort, was that no one has yet managed to come up with an ethical system that every rational person has to agree with. So why should parents expect to succeed?

Diana, isn't the evidence from the history of humanity that people, both children and adults, can be really horrible to each other, and are most likely to be horrible to people and animals they are psychically close to? For example, one of the standard facts about crime is that people are most likely to be murdered by someone that they know. And I think that most people here have memories of kids bullying, or trying to bully, other kids. Perhaps the motives are not for fun, or by default, but they certainly seem remarkably common.

And I'm also surprised that you think that parents' own enjoyment of life doesn't matter.

Hyena, parents typically don't treat their own children the same, as each child has its own personality.

Hyena writes:

@Tracy

I mean that the differences in parenting are probably marginal and so, in general, will produce largely the same result.

I know very few people whose parents did anything truly radical.

diana writes:
And I'm also surprised that you think that parents' own enjoyment of life doesn't matter.

... uh! where di I say that?

about people (children and adults) being horrible to each other, we have evidence yes, but horribility does not just happen. And I thought it might be worth trying to make sense of how it is produced. I don't mean blaming oneself, attending parenting classes, or undergo psychoanalisis. Just being interested in what is really happening.

I'm sorry if I sounded a bit adversarial in my first comment. There was probably something in Caplan's wording that triggered that.

But I really think the three CCC are perfectly ok, and good advice, if it doesn't preclude reflecting on what we are doing. Which is good as well, and will pay back in terms of wellbeing of all. Just plain common sense, I guess.
diana

p.s. also, English is not my first language, so I may also not be able to write clearly. For instance: does the word horribility exist?

Tracy W writes:

Diana, you said "Yeah, if parents don't matter why bother?", I read this as a reference to Caplan's argument that parenting behaviours, within a wide range, don't affect children's future odds of success once the kids leave the house. Your statement of "why bother" implied an indifference to how children affect their parents' happiness while they're still at home.

Horribility does not just happen in the same sense that niceness does not just happen. Both can have causes. (Horribility is a sort of slang word, I wouldn't use it in formal English, but you've made a great choice for a blog post).

Hyena - obviously you are going to know very few people whose parents did anything truly radical, truly radical behaviour is that that differs from the accepted or traditional forms, and thus is the behaviour of a minority, as a matter of definition. When my Grandmother went out to work as a teacher when she had kids at home and a husband already making an adequate wage, that was radical. When my mum did, it was quite ordinary. However, within the group of actions that, by the standards of the time, are non-radical, there can be significant variations. Eg mum having a paid job, using spanking or not. Setting boundaries or not. Those are the things that researchers often study.

David J. Balan writes:

Tracy W,

I think you're right that it is widely agreed in ethical philosophy that there is no absolute moral truth that can be demonstrated solely through reason and without any recourse to unproven axioms. But that doesn't mean that there's no such thing as morality, and (religious propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding) it doesn't mean that morality is merely a matter of opinion. And once you have a morality, there is nothing stopping you from inculcating it into your kid. My point is simply that such moral education is much better than threats of punishment as a way to get your kid not to do bad things.

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