Should You Ground Your Kid? The Great Debate

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“You’re grounded!” Perhaps you heard those words quite a bit when you were a kid, if not aimed at you then maybe a sibling or a friend who was a magnet for trouble. Now you’re a parent and your kid has done something to make you want to ground him. Should you?

What the experts say

There’s a reason grounding is still popular — it works, if executed properly. “Groundings work if the child misses something he cares about. Otherwise it’s worthless,” parenting expert Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, told BabyCenter. Grounding usually involves a child’s losing TV time or access to a favorite game as well as the ability to attend an event, such as a party or play date — anything they would consider fun and isn’t required, such as school and doctor appointments.

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One of the keys to grounding kids effectively is following through with the punishment. Most parents ground their kids for too long, and when the inconvenience takes a toll on everyone’s schedules and lives (not just the child who’s being grounded), they cave. For this reason, kids under 6 should be given timeouts in minutes, with each minute representing one year of age, wrote family therapist Mark Hutten on his website, Online Parenting Coach. As kids reach school age, grounding becomes the new timeout. “Between the ages of 6 and 10, you can start to ground kids for a few hours to a day at a time.” For older kids, he suggests “modified grounding,” where kids have to earn their way out of the grounding by completing certain tasks or assignments. These shouldn’t be everyday chores but rather small projects, such as washing windows or cleaning a room.

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Experts recommend revoking privileges that kids really care about, such as access to cellphones, laptops, or gaming systems. This form of “digital grounding,” which the Washington Post called “the disciplinary tool of the 21st century,” works best for school age and high school kids. Parents are already doing it: A recent Pew Research Center report found that 62 percent of parents said they had taken away a cellphone as a punishment.

Whatever you do, don’t make the common mistake of taking away privileges for too long. “A week or two can feel like forever to a child,” Sal Severe, author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too, told BabyCenter. “And it can backfire. Kids can get angry and resentful, seek revenge, and a cycle of retaliation begins. Remember: You want to encourage your child to do better next time.”

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What the research says

While most of the research on disciplining kids involves a variety of methods, not just grounding, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that punishment in general is effective. One Washington University study found that punishment for bad behavior is more likely to influence behavior than offering rewards when a child behaves well. Another recent study found that strong punishments (such as timeouts and groundings) reduced behavior problems in the most oppositional children, but only if used less than 16 percent of the time. And the American Academy of Pediatrics examined a large group of studies and found that in preschool children, a timeout increased compliance with parental expectations in most instances, and similar effectiveness is seen with older children. To be effective, however, researchers note, the timeouts or groundings must be used consistently but infrequently, and for an appropriate amount of time.

Three decades of research on timeouts show that they work best when they are brief and immediate, according to Alan E. Kazdin, a Yale University psychology professor and the director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. His research suggests that teenagers, specifically, shouldn’t lose a privilege for more than a day. Beyond that, “it puts a little wedge in the relationship between parent and child,” he told U.S. News & World Report. Long groundings also make it more likely that the parents will relent after a few days. According to Kazdin, it’s better to ask the child to practice good behavior in order to win privileges back.

What the parents say

“I was grounded as a kid, and it taught me that my actions have consequences. We grounded our kids, though not very often, because we wanted it to be meaningful. The hardest thing as a parent is that you have to commit to it. If you say, ‘You’re grounded for a week’ but you don’t enforce it, you teach your kids that his parents are pushovers.” — Sue Gilman, Winter Park, Fla.

“I think it does kids good. It gives you time to think about what you did.” — Carolina Miranda, Los Angeles.

“A good punishment takes away something the kid cares about. If a kid is happy staying home and playing a computer game, grounding is a bad choice. If the kid thrives on socializing, it’s a good choice. The goal of parenting is not to have your children like you.” — Rona Gindin, Orlando, Fla.

The bottom line

The goal of disciplining your child is to change their behavior for the better, not simply to punish. For parents who opt to ground their kids, the practice works best when it’s immediate, age-appropriate, and perhaps more brief than most people assume. Once you’ve made the decision, make the boundaries clear and commit to enforcing them.

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