At a recent family gathering, my husband's childless cousin asked the parents in the room about effective discipline. She and her partner are planning to have kids someday, and she asked us all a simple, yet thought-provoking question: When does taking things away as punishment work for kids? It's a strategy several of us in the group have tried, but nobody really had a clear answer as to what age this tactic is meant for. I mean, a toddler loves their blanket, but do they understand it being taken away as punishment?
Knowing which discipline strategies will work for your kids before you actually try them out is tough. Will your child respond better to gentle parenting methods like re-direction, or will they need some form of punishment to learn how not to misbehave? The jury is usually out until you actually try — which is exactly what we told my husband's cousin — but knowing when to implement specific techniques such as taking away privileges or toys can be helpful.
"A child can understand the idea of a consequence for their behavior in very concrete terms at a fairly early age, around 2 to 3 (i.e. 'if you bite someone again, I will take your toy away'). They can't understand a long-term or future consequence, but they can understand an in-the-moment consequence," Darby Fox, a child and adolescent family therapist practicing in New York tells Romper. "Around age 4, a child can start to understand the future loss of a privilege as punishment."
Dr. Scott Krugman, vice chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore tells Romper that although a child's attachment to an object like a favorite toy can start as early as 9 months, using this type of punishment really won't be effective until a child is old enough to understand what is expected of them.
"Once a child can understand the behavioral expectations of what they should and should not do, then removing privileges or games will be more effective as a deterrent or punishment," Dr. Krugman tells Romper. "It is very important, however, to make sure that the removal of something is close in time to the actual 'bad behavior,' as toddlers don’t understand time well, and punishing them two days after an event will not have the benefit you are looking for."
Fox also tells Romper that in addition to making sure your child is old enough to understand this type of consequence, a crucial part of using the tactic of taking something away is that parents should clearly state the punishment upfront.
"The important piece of this approach to discipline is to establish these consequences in advance (i.e. 'if you don't clean up your room, you will lose the ability to play with your LEGOs tonight'). As a reactive form of punishment, taking away privileges seems random and fails to establish the connection between a behavior and a consequence," Fox notes. "When set up in advance, it gives the child a choice — if they don't make their bed, they are choosing to not be allowed to play with their LEGOs. The sooner we set up this sense of accountability, the less discipline we'll have to do over the long term."
Another consideration that experts say can be made in addition to making sure the consequence is outlined ahead of time, is that your child can make the appropriate connection between their actions and the punishment.
"It's very important for parents to make a connection between the behavior and what is being taken away, particularly as a child gets older. For instance, if they fail to obey rules around devices or video games, it makes sense to take those away as punishment," Fox tells Romper. "On the other hand, if they can't be nice to their sister, they don't get to spend time with their friends — this sends the message that if they can't be nice to this person, they don't get to hang out with that person. As parents, you have to make the connection to the consequence for the child because their brain just doesn't yet work that way."
Above all, Dr. Krugman suggests that the key factor in ensuring this type of discipline is effective is the parent's ability to stay consistent. "The most important part of parenting is consistency. Children are much more likely to misbehave when there is an expectation mismatch," he tells Romper. "If one day jumping on the bed is a fun activity, and the next day they get punished, that creates confusion. Additionally, parents need to follow through. Idle threats of 'If you don’t stop, I’ll take away your toy,' without doing it become hollow and teach kids to ignore parents. Never make a punishment threat you won’t follow through with."
Darby Fox, child and adolescent family therapist practicing in New York
Scott Krugman, MD, MS, FAAP, Vice Chair, Department of Pediatrics, Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore