Grounding children is a time-honored tradition, and a favored punishment technique used by parents the world around. It’s the childrearing equivalent of kiddie jail; a way of restricting a child’s freedom in response to bad behavior. Although grounding can be an effective punishment, it can also undermine your ultimate goals when used incorrectly.
Is grounding children an effective punishment?
Grounding children certainly has is uses, but it also comes with many drawbacks. First and foremost, grounding is primarily a punitive measure, one that’s detached from any sort of teaching; which, after all, is supposed to be the primary goal of discipline. The only thing kids learn from being grounded is that they’re being punished. Punishment itself can be an effective motivator in some situations, but it’s certainly not something you want to rely on.
Because grounding is a punitive measure, you risk provoking all the resentment and bad feelings that accompany any punishment-heavy discipline approach. This is especially true when parents ground children too frequently, or resort to this punishment in situations where it isn’t warranted. Some parents ground children for every little offense, to the point where a a child sees no way out, and thus has little motivation to engage in positive behavior.
It’s quite easy for parents to get carried away when grounding children. Much like the U.S injustice system, which routinely penalizes people’s errors with punishments that are thousands or tens of thousands of times more harsh than the actual crime, (if someone commits a crime that puts us through 30 minutes of pain or discomfort, we’ll respond by giving them 30 years of torment as payback), parents often ground children because they want to send a message. But this frequently results in overly harsh punishments that are disproportionate to the infraction at hand. When you’re overly harsh in your discipline approach, it discourages rather than encourages children, and ends up undermining your ultimate goal of having well-behaved children.
When should you ground children?
Grounding children isn’t appropriate for everyday discipline issues, and should be reserved primarily for situations when…
A) A child’s behavior is particularly severe, consequential, and/or egregious;
B) The misbehavior involves some sort of conscious decision on their part (as opposed to being a spontaneous reaction to a particular situation they find themselves in); and
C) The child had some understanding that their behavior was wrong.
A number of parents ground children far too frequently or in situations where it isn’t productive. Either they’re too quick to ground children over everyday discipline problems, or they ground children for the type of spontaneous misbehavior that erupts because of circumstance or a child’s inability to constrain their emotions. In other words, behavior which children have little conscious control over. Before long parents will find themselves in a destructive pattern wherein they’re grounding children all the time and kids are becoming increasingly discouraged, which ultimately worsens their behavior.
Grounding is not as effective for….
- Emotional outbursts
- Routine discipline problems
- Situation-related conflicts or misbehavior that isn’t entirely the child’s doing
- Unintentional lapses in judgment.
If you find yourself grounding children in situations like this, it’s time to learn some new discipline approaches. (Get our e-book Positive Parenting for a number of ideas on more creative and effective discipline strategies.)
How old should children be before you start grounding them? At what age should children be grounded?
Grounding should primarily be used on older children in the latter grades of elementary school or above. It’s much less effective on children younger than 7 or 8, who have much less insight into their behavior, accompanied by much less impulse control. Younger kids are apt to learn very little from grounding, and there are far more effective discipline strategies for kids this age.
How long should children be grounded?
As mentioned earlier, it’s easy for parents to get carried away with grounding. When you’re upset with a child, it’s easy for the old “You’re grounded until you’re 18” statement to slip from your mouth, or some variation of it. But punishment has a rapidly diminishing return on investment: it quickly loses impact with each incremental escalation in length or severity. So more is not necessarily better.
As a general rule, the length of grounding for pre-teens should be counted in days or even half days. There’s little reason for grounding over a single incident to extend beyond a week. A general guideline for teens is no longer than a month, and that’s for really serious offenses, like throwing a party and trashing the house when you’re away. A week or days would still be more appropriate for most infractions. If you feel a need to resort to more severe punishments to get your point across, it’s better to instead spend your time and energy figuring out what’s causing the behavior you’re inclined to punish so severely, and address it from the other end.
How to ground children: Some tips for parents
The following tips will help you use grounding more effectively:
1) There are various ways of grounding children, and not all grounding punishments need to be the same. You can mix and match some of these variables to better achieve your goals, or even use a tier system that de-escalates in severity as time goes by:
- House restriction with lost privileges
- House restriction
- No friends on the phone
Keep in mind any commitments you plan to make an exception for, such as church, tutoring appointments, etc. You can also make beneficial exceptions if there’s something really important to a child coming up, and making them miss it would be exceptionally mean and cruel. Remember: the goal is to teach a lesson, not make your child miserable or provoke them to hate you. If a child’s been looking forward to something for quite some time, and you make them miss it because you ground them a few days before, especially over something ticky tack, you’re being a complete jack-ass. Be flexible and leave room for exceptions, so that the punishment doesn’t become overly harsh. Doing so will even earn you more compliance, cooperation, and effort on the part of children. Which is what you’re truly seeking.
2) Be clear on the details of grounding and what it entails, so that kids know what they can and can’t do.
3) Avoid the tendency to ground children out of anger or raw emotion. If you’re in the middle of a heated argument and feel a need to issue grounding as punishment, refrain from giving a timeline right then and there. Instead say something like, “I’ll have to think about it and let you know once I’ve had a chance to calm down.” This is likely to have a bigger quelling effect on their behavior anyway, since it puts them on notice and may shift their brain into damage control mode. Of course, keep in mind that it’s best not to punish in the middle of heated arguments to begin with, and that you also shouldn’t be grounding children for emotional outbursts or anger towards you.
4) Like I suggest for all punishments, work with children on negotiating a proper punishment, involving them in the process. After all, even adults charged with criminal offenses get to plea bargain. There’s no reason you can’t negotiate with children when it comes to grounding them. Doing so will help them see you as a more reasonable parent, which results in more compliance with whatever punishment you issue.
5) Consider allowing children the opportunity to work off a grounding punishment with positive behavior, like good deeds, extra chores or compliant behavior.