Maternal discipline of young children: Context, belief, and practice

Rebecca R.S. Socolar, Ruth E.K. Stein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


This report describes maternal discipline of infants and toddlers, focusing on how the context of the misbehavior affects maternal beliefs and practices. Mothers of 1- to 4-year-old children were interviewed using a 20-minute, structured questionnaire at two practice sites: (1) an inner-city teaching hospital pediatric clinic (n = 104) and (2) a private pediatrician's office in a nearby suburban neighborhood (n = 100). Measures were constructed to assess beliefs and practices about three kinds of discipline (teaching, spanking, and removing) and about two approaches to discipline (positive or negative). We found that mothers believe significantly (p < .001) more strongly in all three kinds of discipline for dangerous misbehavior compared with annoying ones. Belief in teaching, spanking, and negative approach increase with age; belief in removing decreases (p < .001); and belief in positive approach remains stable. Belief in spanking starts earlier than belief in teaching, and belief in negative tone increases with age. Mothers seem to have better formulated beliefs about spanking and negative and positive approach to discipline than about teaching or removing. Eighty-five percent believe time-out is at times appropriate for a 2 year old, but only 67% had practiced it in the past week. Belief and practice of time-out varied by the age of the child and practice site. Explaining, distracting, and praising were practiced frequently, whereas bribing was less common. Less than half (44%) reported that they had ever discussed discipline with their child's physician, although 85% thought that their physician could give good advice. There is evidence that mothers change their minds about the appropriateness of time-out as their child gets older, but beliefs about other kinds of discipline remain relatively constant. We conclude that the type of misbehavior and the age of the child affect a mother's beliefs about discipline. These findings suggest a role for pediatricians in exploring and broadening parents' concepts of discipline.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1996


  • Beliefs
  • Child development
  • Child rearing
  • Discipline
  • Physician's role

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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