Evidence-Based Approaches to Disciplining Children

Emily Oster

10 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

Evidence-Based Approaches to Disciplining Children

1-2-3 Magic, Incredible Years, Triple P—Positive Parenting Program, and more

Emily Oster

10 min Read

When I sat down to write Cribsheet, I had a pretty good sense of the topics that I wanted to cover. Discipline was not among them. As I told my editor, Ginny, “I don’t think there is any very good data on this, and I do not want to wade into a topic where I literally can say nothing.”

But sometime during the writing, Ginny raised this again. She noted the popularity of a system called 1-2-3-Magic. Could we say anything about the data behind that?

In the end, this proved to be one of the areas where writing the book changed how I parent. In fact, the data was better than I thought. There are evidence-based discipline approaches. More than one, in fact. These include things like 1-2-3 Magic, Incredible Years, Triple P—Positive Parenting Program, and so on. Many schools—including those that have children with serious behavioral issues—use a program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, which has a similar set of goals and structures.

What do the data-based discipline approaches have in common?

Broadly, all these emphasize a few key elements.

First, recognize that children are not adults, and you usually cannot improve their behavior with a discussion. If your four-year-old is taking their shirt off in the museum, they will not respond to a reasoned discussion about how you actually do need to wear shirts in public places. The flip side of this—more important—is that you shouldn’t expect them to respond to adult reasoning. And as a result, you should not get angry the way you would if, say, your spouse was stripping in the museum and didn’t stop after you explained why they shouldn’t.

All these interventions emphasize not getting angry. Don’t yell, don’t escalate, and definitely don’t hit. Controlling parental anger is the first central part of the intervention.

This is so easy to say, but it is often so hard to do. It takes practice on your part. Most of us do not want to get angry with our kids, but we have all found ourselves furious in various moments. Toddler discipline is, really, parental discipline. Breathe. Take a second. I once told my children, “I’m so mad right now, I’m going to the bathroom for a while to calm down.” (It’s the only door in the house that locks.) And I did, only coming out when I thought I could handle not only them, but myself.

An extension of this your-child-is-not-an-adult observation is that it is probably not a good use of your time to think a lot about why your small child is having a tantrum. There is a strong temptation to try to figure out what exactly is the issue—to try to get them to articulate the precise problems they are having. Even if they can talk, this is likely to be fruitless, since they probably do not know. Tantrums happen for all kinds of reasons. Working on disciplining the tantrum behavior is the goal. If they do not think of a tantrum as a way to react, they can work on developing other, more productive ways to communicate their problems.

Second, these approaches all emphasize setting up a clear system of rewards and punishments and following through on them every time. For example, 1-2-3 Magic develops a system of counting (to three, obviously) in the face of disruptive behavior, and if three is reached, there is a defined consequence (a time out, loss of a privilege, etc.).

Finally, there is a strong emphasis on consistency. Whatever is the system you use, you use it every time. If the consequence of counting to three is a time out, then there needs to be a time out every time, including, say, in the grocery store. (The book suggests you find a corner of the store, or bring a “time-out mat” with you.)

As an extension, if you say no to something, you stick to no. If your kid asks for dessert and you say no, you cannot then later say yes if they whine for long enough. This basically makes sense—what do they learn from that? That whining will sometimes work. Let’s do more of it! And similarly, do not make threats you cannot carry out.

Let’s say you are on an airplane and your child keeps kicking the seat in front of them. Telling them, “If you do that one more time, I’m going to leave you on the airplane” is not a good threat. Why? Because you are not going to leave them on the airplane. When they then kick again to test this, and they find they are not, in fact, left on the airplane, they’ll file away this for later. The same logic goes for the common parent car trip threat, “I’m going to turn this car around if you kids do not stop fighting!” Fine to say this, but you better be prepared to turn around.

These are the broad parameters. The specifics differ across programs. If you are hoping to use this kind of discipline, you’ll probably want to pick a particular program and stick to it. One may not be better than the other, but given the importance of consistency, it is necessary to adopt one approach among everyone who is with your kid, not five similar but not identical approaches.

These approaches are helpful through older ages, but can be used as early as two. The books have some specific guidelines for time outs—for example, they should be shorter at younger ages and do not start until after a tantrum has ended. And they do outline some key components that are useful for very small children. For example, do not let your child use a tantrum to get what they want.

How do we know these approaches work?

The evidence that these work is based on a number of randomized controlled trials.

To give an example, a paper published in in 2003 in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported on an evaluation of 1-2-3 Magic among 222 families. All the parents involved were looking for help managing their children’s behavior, although none of the children had clinical behavior problems. That is to say, they were just engaging in the standard difficult behaviors.

The intervention was fairly light—parents attended three two-hour meetings that discussed the 1-2-3 Magic approach, and were shown videos and given handouts about particular problem issues. There was a fourth two-hour meeting a month later to reinforce.

The experimental group—the one that got the intervention—had improvements on all the variables measured. The parents scored better on measures of parenting—i.e., “Are you hostile and angry toward your child?”—and the children scored better on a variety of measures of behavior. Moreover, the parents reported their children were better behaved and more compliant, and that the parents’ stress had gone down. The authors noted the effect sizes were not enormous—it would be hard to expect huge effects, given how limited the intervention was—but they were large enough for parents to notice them and affect their time with their children.

Smaller trials of 1-2-3 Magic with longer follow-ups have shown similar impacts, with authors arguing that the effects of these programs can be seen even two years later. The evidence isn’t limited to this particular program. A number of studies—especially in the UK and Ireland—have seen similar impacts with the Incredible Years approach. The results there show improvements in parenting practices, reductions in child behavior problems, and lower parental stress. Reviews that pull together evidence on all programs of this type show similarly consistent findings across studies. The bottom line is, they just seem to work.

So, okay, these approaches work. But should you use one?

One answer to this is that it depends on the alternative. In Cribsheet, I talk more about spanking. Bottom line: the evidence suggests that it has negative consequences in both the short and long term. So if hitting is the alternative, then one of these programs probably is worth a try. And if you are tired and frustrated and feel you don’t like your kid very much, then, well, that’s a reason to try also.

In this way, these programs are also not unlike sleep training. Many of the benefits are to the parents: lower stress, better relationship with your child, etc. If what you are doing is working for you, great. If not, this might be worth a try.

Back to the present moment. I was reflecting on these issues last week, albeit in a slightly different frame.

During the invasion of the Capitol last week, a friend texted me to the effect of “How on earth am I supposed to deal with this while also my kid is being difficult?” (Answer: TV, but let’s put that aside). Obviously that was an extreme day, but I cannot be alone in finding it hard to parent well with everything else is going on.

Let’s imagine there is an email at 5pm on Friday saying your kids school is going remote for the next week, and you have a non-negotiable engagement every day for the whole day the following week, and your partner needs to work too and you have no back-up child care. It is really, really hard to then sit down at 6pm and have a normal dinner in which you engage the kids about their day. It is really, really easy to fly off the handle when they use their placemat/table/shirt as a napkin.

(This is all totally hypothetical obviously).

Part of this instinct, part of why this is hard to control (at least I think!) is that we sometimes expect a degree of understanding from our kids which they just do not have. This gets harder as kids get older. With a ten year old, or even a very verbal six year old, you can get the impression of greater maturity and control than they really have.

Why can’t you understand that I actually do need to be looking at my phone to find out if we are having a real coup or what? I just cannot help with the stupid Lego problem right now. It’s not important!

But the point is, really, the same as the one above. When we think about the discipline discussion, the first big take away is recognizing that your children are not adults (see shirt-in-museum example above.) They’re not adults in this moment, either. Which means it may not be reasonable to expect them to understand why you’re scared and upset without some explanation. To my five year old, focusing on the Legos is important.

All this is to say, there may be some broader lessons here about managing this really, really complicated time. As I told my friend, though, some of those lessons may involve television.

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The AAP’s guidelines recommend sleeping in the same room as your baby “ideally for the first six months.” However, the risk of SIDS is dramatically lower after four months, and the evidence in favor of the protective effect of room sharing is quite weak (both overall and even more so after four months). There is also growing evidence that infants who sleep in their own room by four months sleep better at four months, better at nine months, and even better at 30 months.

With this in mind, it’s worth asking why this recommendation continues at all — or at least why the AAP doesn’t push it back to four months. They say decreased arousals from sleep are linked to SIDS, which could mean that babies sleeping in their own room is risky. But this link is extremely indirect, and they do not show direct evidence to support it.

According to the data we have, parents should sleep in the same room as a baby for as long as it works for them! Sharing a room with a child may have negative impacts on both child and adult sleep. We should give families more help in navigating these trade-offs and making the decisions that work best for them.

#emilyoster #parentdata #roomsharing #sids #parentingguide

The AAP’s guidelines recommend sleeping in the same room as your baby “ideally for the first six months.” However, the risk of SIDS is dramatically lower after four months, and the evidence in favor of the protective effect of room sharing is quite weak (both overall and even more so after four months). There is also growing evidence that infants who sleep in their own room by four months sleep better at four months, better at nine months, and even better at 30 months.

With this in mind, it’s worth asking why this recommendation continues at all — or at least why the AAP doesn’t push it back to four months. They say decreased arousals from sleep are linked to SIDS, which could mean that babies sleeping in their own room is risky. But this link is extremely indirect, and they do not show direct evidence to support it.

According to the data we have, parents should sleep in the same room as a baby for as long as it works for them! Sharing a room with a child may have negative impacts on both child and adult sleep. We should give families more help in navigating these trade-offs and making the decisions that work best for them.

#emilyoster #parentdata #roomsharing #sids #parentingguide
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Watch the full segment at the link in my bio 🔗

#tamronhall #tamronhallshow #emilyoster #parentingsupport #workingparents

It was an absolute pleasure to be featured on the @tamronhallshow! We talked about all things data-driven parenting and, in this clip, what I call the plague of secret parenting. To balance having a career and having a family, we can’t hide the fact that we’re parents. If mothers and fathers at the top can speak more openly about child-care obligations, it will help us all set a new precedent.

Watch the full segment at the link in my bio 🔗

#tamronhall #tamronhallshow #emilyoster #parentingsupport #workingparents
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My guest on this episode, @everodsky, has come up with a solution here, or at least a way for us to recognize the problem and make our own solutions. I’ve wanted to speak with Eve for ages, since I read her book Fair Play. We had a great conversation about the division of household labor, one I think you’ll get a lot out of!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentdatapodcast #parentingpodcast #householdtips #fairplay #invisiblelabor

Invisible labor. It’s the work — in our households especially — that has to happen but that no one sees. It’s making the doctor’s appointment, ensuring birthday cards are purchased, remembering the milk.

My guest on this episode, @everodsky, has come up with a solution here, or at least a way for us to recognize the problem and make our own solutions. I’ve wanted to speak with Eve for ages, since I read her book Fair Play. We had a great conversation about the division of household labor, one I think you’ll get a lot out of!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentdatapodcast #parentingpodcast #householdtips #fairplay #invisiblelabor
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Good news: fancier vitamins are not better.  Folic acid is the most important prenatal ingredient. Iron (with vitamin C) and DHA are also nice to have. Other included ingredients have only weak or no evidence to support their use. (If you do not consume animal products, add B12, plus a few others depending on your diet.)

Vitamins are just vitamins. Any prenatal vitamin that contains these is enough. 

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article with everything you need to know about prenatal vitamins.

#emilyoster #parentdata #prenatalvitamins #pregnancydiet #pregnancytips

Prenatal vitamins 💊 If there is any product that seems designed to prey on our fears, it’s this one. You’re newly pregnant and you want to do it right. Everyone agrees you need prenatal vitamins, so you get them. But do you want to be that person who just… buys the generic prenatal vitamins?

Good news: fancier vitamins are not better. Folic acid is the most important prenatal ingredient. Iron (with vitamin C) and DHA are also nice to have. Other included ingredients have only weak or no evidence to support their use. (If you do not consume animal products, add B12, plus a few others depending on your diet.)

Vitamins are just vitamins. Any prenatal vitamin that contains these is enough.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article with everything you need to know about prenatal vitamins.

#emilyoster #parentdata #prenatalvitamins #pregnancydiet #pregnancytips
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#parentdata #emilyoster #newborncare #parentingadvice #parentingtips

When it comes to introducing your newborn to the world, timing matters. It’s a good idea to minimize germ exposure in the first 6-8 weeks; after that, it’s inevitable and, very likely, a good idea! This doesn’t mean you need to be trapped inside. The most significant exposure risks are from seeing other people at home — family, etc. These interactions are not infinitely risky, but they do pose more risk than a walk or a trip to the grocery store, since they involve closer interaction. Think simple and make sure everyone is washing their hands before holding the baby. 💛

#parentdata #emilyoster #newborncare #parentingadvice #parentingtips
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🔥 Hot Flash from ParentData is a weekly newsletter on navigating your health and hormones in the post-reproductive years. Written by Dr. Gillian Goddard, Hot Flash provides all of the information you need to have a productive, evidence-based conversation about hormonal health with your doctor.

#emilyoster #parentdata #hotflash #perimenopause #womenshealth

The first edition of Hot Flash is out now! Comment “Link” for a DM to learn more about the late-reproductive stage.

There are times when we expect hormonal shifts. Our reproductive lives are bookended by puberty and menopause. We discuss those changes often because they are definitive and dramatic — a first period is something many of us remember clearly. But between ages 13 and 53, our hormones are changing in more subtle ways. During the late-reproductive stage (in your 40s), you can expect a lot of changes in your menstrual cycle, including the length and symptoms you experience throughout. It’s an important time in our lives that is often overlooked!

🔥 Hot Flash from ParentData is a weekly newsletter on navigating your health and hormones in the post-reproductive years. Written by Dr. Gillian Goddard, Hot Flash provides all of the information you need to have a productive, evidence-based conversation about hormonal health with your doctor.

#emilyoster #parentdata #hotflash #perimenopause #womenshealth
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Now tell me in the comments: what’s a parenting move you’ve made recently that feels right to you?

#parentingcommunity #parentingsupport #parentingquotes #emilyoster #parentdata

There are plenty of reels telling you how to parent. Plenty of panic headlines saying that “studies show” what’s best for your kid. Even good data, from a trusted source, can send us into a spiral of comparison. But I want you to remember that no one knows your kid better than you. It’s important to absorb the research, but only you will know the approach that works best for you and your child. 💙

Now tell me in the comments: what’s a parenting move you’ve made recently that feels right to you?

#parentingcommunity #parentingsupport #parentingquotes #emilyoster #parentdata
...

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Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #parentdatapodcast #emilyoster #emilynagoski #comeasyouare #cometogether #longtermrelationship #intimacy #relationships

Let’s talk about sex (after) baby! Today on the podcast, I was lucky enough to speak with @enagoski about her new book on sexual connection in long-term relationships. Especially after having kids, this is something many people struggle with. Emily tells us to stop worrying about what’s “normal” and focus on pleasure in its many forms.

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #parentdatapodcast #emilyoster #emilynagoski #comeasyouare #cometogether #longtermrelationship #intimacy #relationships
...

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Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on another common formula question: should you throw away old formula powder?

#emilyoster #parentdata #babyformula #babyfeeding #parentingstruggles

Ever wondered if you can safely use leftover baby formula? 🍼 The CDC says to throw out unused formula immediately because of the risk of bacterial growth. However, research suggests that bacterial concentrations do not appreciably increase after 3, 12, or even 24 hours at refrigerator temperatures. Good news! This means there’s not a strong data-based reason to throw out formula right away if you store it in the fridge.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on another common formula question: should you throw away old formula powder?

#emilyoster #parentdata #babyformula #babyfeeding #parentingstruggles
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#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingtips #parentingadvice #newparents #parentingcommunity

What’s the most important piece of advice for new parents? Here’s one answer, but I want to hear from you! Share your suggestions in the comments ⬇️

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingtips #parentingadvice #newparents #parentingcommunity
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What's in the bag of a Vagina Economist? 👀 Someone please tell me this looks familiar to you.

What`s in the bag of a Vagina Economist? 👀 Someone please tell me this looks familiar to you. ...

Comment ”link” for a DM to learn more about tongue ties 🔗

Breastfeeding is often difficult, especially at the start. For babies with tongue ties, many infants (and their moms) struggle to get the hang of a good latch. This can lead to painful nipples and to inefficient feeding, and then low weight gain.

So what does the data say about the increasingly common practice of cutting tongue-ties in infants to improve breastfeeding success? Several weeks ago, @nytimes published a long and quite scary article on this topic.

After diving into the data, here is what I found. There is limited evidence that frenotomy procedures improve breastfeeding efficacy and the harms of the procedure are minimal. Many women do report that it alleviates pain and helps them with breastfeeding. However, it should not be a first-line treatment for breastfeeding problems.

#parentdata #emilyoster #tonguetie #tonguetiebabies #breastfeedingsupport

Comment ”link” for a DM to learn more about tongue ties 🔗

Breastfeeding is often difficult, especially at the start. For babies with tongue ties, many infants (and their moms) struggle to get the hang of a good latch. This can lead to painful nipples and to inefficient feeding, and then low weight gain.

So what does the data say about the increasingly common practice of cutting tongue-ties in infants to improve breastfeeding success? Several weeks ago, @nytimes published a long and quite scary article on this topic.

After diving into the data, here is what I found. There is limited evidence that frenotomy procedures improve breastfeeding efficacy and the harms of the procedure are minimal. Many women do report that it alleviates pain and helps them with breastfeeding. However, it should not be a first-line treatment for breastfeeding problems.

#parentdata #emilyoster #tonguetie #tonguetiebabies #breastfeedingsupport
...

Tag a friend who needs to hear this 💛 For many choices in parenting, there is no one right answer. We can use research and data to make informed decisions, but ultimately, it won’t tell you what to do. Only you can decide what will be best for your kids and your family.

I’m here to remind you to take a deep breath and trust yourself. I’ll be here to support you along the way. 

Thank you to everyone who submitted videos, including:
@sarah.consoli
@jess_lynn627
@nicolevandenwills
@thedrblair
@ncbenedict29
@haleycimini
@iamkellysnodgrass
@calesse_smith
@garnet__gordon
@jencoopgaiser87
@danigirl18c
@jamielundergreen
@carly_comber
@thecelebratingmama
@emilyannbynum
@eeliz413

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingadvice #parentingsupport #parentingquotes

Tag a friend who needs to hear this 💛 For many choices in parenting, there is no one right answer. We can use research and data to make informed decisions, but ultimately, it won’t tell you what to do. Only you can decide what will be best for your kids and your family.

I’m here to remind you to take a deep breath and trust yourself. I’ll be here to support you along the way.

Thank you to everyone who submitted videos, including:
@sarah.consoli
@jess_lynn627
@nicolevandenwills
@thedrblair
@ncbenedict29
@haleycimini
@iamkellysnodgrass
@calesse_smith
@garnet__gordon
@jencoopgaiser87
@danigirl18c
@jamielundergreen
@carly_comber
@thecelebratingmama
@emilyannbynum
@eeliz413

#emilyoster #parentdata #parentingadvice #parentingsupport #parentingquotes
...

Congratulations on making it through another year of panic headlines! We’ve had some doozies this year, like aspartame causing cancer and the perils of white noise, but these headlines are very often based on poor data. Correlation does not equal causation. There will certainly be more panic headlines in 2024, but ParentData is here to debunk them for you.

#emilyoster #parentdata #happynewyear2024 #panicheadline #datadriven

Congratulations on making it through another year of panic headlines! We’ve had some doozies this year, like aspartame causing cancer and the perils of white noise, but these headlines are very often based on poor data. Correlation does not equal causation. There will certainly be more panic headlines in 2024, but ParentData is here to debunk them for you.

#emilyoster #parentdata #happynewyear2024 #panicheadline #datadriven
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