International Parenting: Discipline


There are many hot button issues when it comes to parenting. It doesn’t matter what the issue is but you know you will have one opinion and someone else will have a differing. SEEK has interviewed moms from around the world because we are curious about their cultural and personal views on certain issues.



By Becky Horace

Spanking, timeout, positive reinforcement, or just simply ignoring the behavior; which is the best method when it comes to discipline and your child?

Coming from the south, it would not be uncommon to see a child popped on the bottom for acting out, be it with an open hand or a wooden spoon (southern moms seem to like a wooden spoon and I am not sure why). Most of the time you will hear the parent threaten “do I need to take you to the bathroom?” That was it, if you heard that you were in trouble. My parent’s spanked on occasion when I deserved it with a bad attitude or disobedience but it was never done with a belt or violent. I never remember having the “do I need to take you to the bathroom?” conversation because I am a fast learner and I knew I didn’t like spankings. All my parents had to do was give a look that said “you better shape up girl” and that worked just fine.

Now that I am a parent, (I will be totally honest here) my son has been popped on the bottom for acting out. It is a last resort option to get his attention but again it has maybe happened a few times to where all I need to do now is ask “do you need a spanking to listen?” and normally the answer is “no ma’am” and then he complies with what I have asked of him. Do I believe I have permanently damaged my son for life because he has been popped on the tush a few times in his toddler years? NOPE. Do I believe I will have to continue to spank him as he gets older for acting out? Nope. I believe I have established my role as the authority figure and luckily at this stage I just need to give the look and ask the question “spanking, timeout or do what I ask?” and it works for us but clearly every child and culture is different.


There have been studies done on the effects of spanking children and what they found was not surprising. CNN wrote an article about this and found most parents surveyed believed that sometimes kids need a good hard spanking (I don’t agree with the “hard spanking” part but I digress) but it turns out that spanking can alter the brain. Children who are spanked have less gray matter, become more aggressive and there is a clear decrease in cognitive abilities.

“The more gray matter you have in the decision-making, thought-processing part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex), the better your ability to evaluate rewards and consequences,” write the authors of a 2011 study that appeared in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. The sad irony is that the more you physically punish your kids for their lack of self-control, the less they have. They learn how to be controlled by external forces (parents, teachers, bosses), but when the boss isn’t looking, then what?”


If you are a parent that is against spanking as a form of discipline, maybe you will choose the timeout method because you believe it to be less harmful to a child’s mental state. Time Magazine wrote an article about different studies that found timeout might not be the way to go either. While it seems like the most kind form of punishment to give the kid a break to “think” about what they have done some experts believe it actually causes the child to feel rejection and pain which can alter the brain. Experts in this article believe that we are sending the message of “I only want to be with you when you behave, when you are bad go be alone.”

“When the parental response is to isolate the child, an instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet. In fact, brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain—like that caused by rejection—looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity.”


Maybe you’re the parent that says “I would never hit my child!” but instead you are screaming, yelling or telling them off to get the results you want. You wouldn’t be alone. I am sure many parents the world over end up raising their voice from time to time but the experts are saying this isn’t the way to go either. An article on Todays Parent found studies published in Child Development Journal said that yelling is the same as corporal punishment (spanking). Yelling and screaming would be scary at any age for a child but studies have found that tweens and teens are the ones most effected and will lead to low self-esteem, behavioral problems and depression.

“Yelling also causes a physiological reaction in both the parents and the kids. When we get frustrated, the brain releases cortisol (the stress hormone), and too much of it causes us to go into fight, flight or freeze mode, explains Kylee Goldman, a child and family therapist in Aurora, Ont. “The cognitive centre of the brain shuts down and the emotion centre takes over,” says Goldman. “Kids’ brains follow the same pattern. Their cortisol levels go up because they’re stressed, their emotions take over, and they either freeze and do nothing, or respond by screaming back, or end up having a tantrum.” If this kind of stress persists during the formative years, a child’s emotional functioning can be affected as he or she grows up.”

Positive reinforcement

It seems the best form of discipline doesn’t really seem like discipline at all. I can imagine this would be difficult for most parents, I know this would be hard for me to ignore the bad behavior completely and give a treat to reinforce the good but some experts say this method is more effective than punishment. In an article found on Psychology Today, a Dutch neuroscientist did a study on this with young children ages ranging from 8-12 years of age. They found that when given a set of instructions, the children were told they were preforming correctly through positive reinforcement the kids performance increased but if they were told they were not doing the activity correctly through negative reinforcement the children did worse with the task.

“Why might this be so? If you think about it for a moment, as the investigators did, it becomes apparent that information which stipulates that you did something wrong is more complicated than information stipulating that you did something well. So younger children may simply have an easier time processing simpler, positive, rewarding information than negative feedback. As the authors noted, “Learning from mistakes is more complex than carrying on in the same way as before. You have to ask yourself what precisely went wrong and how it was possible.” That is, it takes more analysis to figure out that what was done is mistaken than that it is correct.”


After reading how everything negatively effects our children in one way or another, I would guess the best discipline method would be to remain calm, explain in very simple terms to not do the action taking place to your child, and not give into the screaming tantrum and want that is taking place. The best advice I was ever given when I became a parent was “no child ever died from crying” and I believe that is true when you have a screaming kid in your face. Discipline will always be a topic that varies from family to family, see what our international moms are saying is the norm in their culture and how they handle their children’s bad behaviors.


  • Cultural: “Spanking and shouting are both common.”ven
  • Personal: “I was pro-spanking, but now I think it doesn’t solve any bad behavior. There are so many other more effective and non- violent ways to educate and correct a child. I now try really hard not to spank because deep down I know it’s just a way for me to release my frustration for not knowing what to do properly in that situation. My husband and I use naughty corner or calm down corner (timeout). My husband is especially good at distracting from the cause of the tantrums.”


  • Cultural: “Sadly, hitting, spanking is still a very common method of discipline in my culture. Some Gen X/Y parents take to other options such as time out or positive disciplining but that number is not very high.”
  • Personal: “I don’t believe in spanking/hitting. I am more of a believer in let’s discuss, positive discipline or timeout.”


  • Personal: “I think we are quite easy with them, trying to franceexplain everything and why it is important to do it. There are things where I am more flexible and others not. We make sure we keep consistent with my husband so they get to know key important things like not jumping on the sofa, don’t sit on the table, say thank you, etc. There are times, I can use spanking as a threat but will never use it. When he does well we tell him, but not a big applause and medal!”
  • Cultural: “We do not yell much at home, but I believe this happens quite often in my culture, and kids can get spanking and timeout quite often.”

United Kingdom

  • Personal:” Arrrgghh! I don’t believe in smacking but sometimes a talk ukdoesn’t work. You can’t always ignore bad behavior so time out and consequences are important but when this starts? I don’t know. I have found that clear routines and no flexibility (unless totally unavoidable) around meals and sleep is important.”
  • Cultural: “English is to smack and that a smack ‘never hurt or did any harm.’ I think it’s becoming more and more unacceptable and is frowned upon but I imagine behind closed confines of family homes it is still a main source of discipline.”


  • Cultural: “Ignore the bad and reinforce the positive behavior is the method taught out to parents. Spanking is swedenillegal. Time-out not used so much and certainly not in school. Maybe a few parents use it more now since the English TV-program “the nanny” but it’s not a Swedish thing.”
  • Personal: “We aim to follow the above, with positive reinforcement. I do not at all approve time-outs, which I think is a form of shaming the child and will just make the child feel bad about him/herself. I would never spank. Grown-ups are responsible for guiding the child; the child is doing the best it can from its ability. I try to think there is always a reason for everything and when I remember to ask, it is often so. However, I’m only human so I do shout a lot at my son and tell him off quite regularly.”


  • Cultural: “Our culture looks down on spanking, but many in my generation were spanked as children.”US
  • Personal: “We do a lot of positive reinforcement, with time-outs to try to curb the negative things that happen. When she is really bad (multiple timeouts, which happens rarely), we will spank her.”



A big thank you to the moms who were able to help us with this interview.

Check back next week when we discuss the issue of children in restaurants!


photo by Andrew Taylor CC BY 2.0

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