A mother talks to her young child.

Is Your Child Misbehaving? Try Reasoning With Them

Explaining why a behavior is wrong is the least harmful form of discipline for a young child’s development, new analysis suggests

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Among common forms of discipline, only reasoning with a child is associated with positive developmental outcomes, according to a new analysis by Kaitlin Paxton Ward and colleagues from the University of Michigan and University of Nevada.1

Ward and team examined aggressive discipline behaviors by caregivers, including spanking, shaking, shouting, and name-calling, and nonaggressive behaviors, such as reasoning with the child, giving them something else to do, or taking away their privileges. Among these, only reasoning—or explaining why a behavior is wrong—was associated with a decrease in a child’s aggression and an increase in positive relations with their peers.

All Forms of Aggressive Discipline Are Harmful, but Not All Nonaggressive Discipline Is Helpful

The research team used UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys data from 60 low- and middle-income countries for 2009–2013 and 2012–2017. They examined aggressive and nonaggressive discipline behaviors by caregivers in the previous month and their associations with the following three developmental outcomes in children under age 5:

  • Aggression: whether the child is physically aggressive toward other children or adults, which has been linked to later antisocial behavior and poor mental health.
  • Distraction: whether the child gets distracted easily, which can undermine learning and signal lower executive function.
  • Prosocial relations: whether the child gets along well with other children, which is associated with lower levels of emotional and behavioral problems.

Across all countries studied, the most common physically aggressive discipline behavior was spanking, with 43% of caregivers spanking their children in the previous month, followed by shaking (33%). Shouting was the most common psychologically aggressive behavior (66%), followed by name calling (31%).

Verbal reasoning was the most common nonaggressive discipline behavior and the most common form of discipline overall; in the previous month, 80% of caregivers reported explaining to their children why a behavior was wrong. Among other nonaggressive behaviors, fewer than half of caregivers took away privileges from their child (47%) or gave their child something else to do (43%).

The research team tested associations between each discipline behavior and developmental outcomes for young children—whether the behavior was helpful, harmful, or neutral for child aggression, distraction, and prosocial peer relations (Table 1).

Table 1. Verbal Reasoning Is the Only Disciple Behavior Linked to Positive Child Development
Associations Between Caregiver Discipline Behaviors and Positive Child Developmental Outcomes Across 60 Low- and Middle-Income Countries


Caregiver Discipline Behavior Child Developmental Outcome
Decreased Aggression Decreased Distraction Increased Prosocial Relations
Physically aggressive
   Spanked child Harmful Neutral Neutral
   Shook child Harmful Harmful Harmful
Psychologically aggressive
   Shouted at child Harmful Harmful Neutral
   Called child names Harmful Harmful Harmful
   Explained why  child’s behavior was wrong Helpful Neutral Helpful
   Took privileges away from child Neutral Harmful Harmful
   Gave child something else to do Neutral Harmful Neutral

Note: All ‘harmful’ and ‘helpful’ associations are statistically significant.
Source: Kaitlin P. Ward, et al. “Associations Between 11 Parental Discipline Behaviours and Child Outcomes Across 60 Countries,” BMJ Open 13, no. 10 (2023): e058439.


Among nonaggressive behaviors, taking privileges away from a child was associated with 9% higher odds of distraction and 8% lower odds of prosocial peer relations, while giving a child something else to do was associated with 6% higher odds of distraction.

Importantly, these patterns, while differing in strength, held across all 60 countries, showing that despite a diversity of country-level cultural factors and attitudes toward discipline for young children, no form of physical or psychological aggression benefitted child development in any country.

These results are consistent with a recent study of U.S. families that found that young children who receive harsh physical discipline, such as spanking, are more likely to exhibit aggressive, impulsive, or antisocial behaviors. Researchers following American mothers and their children from birth to age 9 found that children who were spanked had higher levels of these “externalizing behavior problems” at later ages—with the effects more consistent and longer lasting among families facing economic hardship.2

Supporting Caregivers in Reducing Aggression Towards Children

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pediatricians and other health care workers educate and support caregivers on avoiding physical punishment and verbal abuse of children, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child calls for eliminating all forms of physical and psychological violence against children.

The new findings add to the evidence that young children across low- and middle-income countries, irrespective of access to resources and prevailing local norms, stand to benefit from cross-cultural efforts to prioritize verbal reasoning and reduce caregiver use of aggressive discipline behaviors. Programs such as the World Health Organization’s Parenting for Lifelong Health provide evidence-based and cost-effective education and training that can be implemented in places with the greatest needs to help caregivers manage their children’s behavior using positive discipline strategies.

Beyond just avoiding aggressive discipline behaviors, the evidence suggests also that caregivers and experts rethink nonaggressive, power-assertive discipline, such as taking privileges away, which is associated with some disadvantages for development.

This article was produced under a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The work of researchers from the NICHD-funded Population Dynamics Research Center at the University of Michigan was highlighted.