Without a doubt, parenting is the most important job on earth, yet it's also the most difficult. Unfortunately, books and articles on the subject of raising a child offer conflicting advice. While positive parenting tactics work well in many cases, a new study finds timeouts and other punishments to be more effective over time for children who have become defiant or violent.

“By investigating how the effectiveness of disciplinary responses vary by the type of noncompliance in toddlers, this study showed how to reconcile the contradictory recommendations of positive parenting and behavioral parent training with each other,” wrote Dr. Robert Larzelere, a professor at Oklahoma State University, and Sada Knowles, a doctoral student, in their new study.

To understand what strategies works best, Larzelere said Knowles interviewed 102 mothers who completed a series of questionnaires and also provided detailed descriptions of five times they had to discipline their toddlers for hitting, whining, defiance, or not listening. The mothers' average age was just over 30 years old, while their toddlers, 65 boys and 40 girls, ranged in age from 17.2 months to 30.8 months. More than three quarters of the mothers were married, and more than half had either a bachelor’s degree (30.5 percent) or some post-graduate education (29.5 percent).

After analyzing the mothers' answers, the research team discovered the most effective disciplining tactic depended, in part, on a child’s behavior and also the time-frame involved.

Short-term vs. Long-term

Hands down, offering compromises was the most effective tactic for an immediate improvement in a child’s behavior, no matter how the child was misbehaving. The next most effective discipline tactic was reasoning with a child in cases of mildly annoying behaviors, such as whining, yet it was not effective when used with defiant or hitting children. In such cases, stronger punishments, such as timeouts or taking something away, changed a child’s bad behavior more than reasoning. That said, these same harsher punishments did not work at all on a whining child.

However, a radically different pattern emerged over the longer-term. Mothers who offered compromises too frequently when dealing with a defiant or violent child began to encounter more, not less, bad behavior. Reasoning was most effective over a longer time span with these children, even though it was less effective immediately. Strong punishments (such as timeouts) reduced behavior problems in the most oppositional toddlers, but only if used less than 16 percent of the time.

“Parents need the full range of nonabusive disciplinary responses, although power assertive responses are less necessary for the most cooperative children,” stated Larzelere and Knowles in their conclusion. Ultimately, they say, parents need to trust themselves to choose the right discipline tactic at the right time.

Source: Larzelere R, Knowles S. Toddlers Need Both Positive Parenting and Consistent Consequences From Mothers. American Psychological Association Convention. 2015.