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I have a six-year old who talks back, hits, etc. and does not respond to disciplinary measures such as time outs, taking away toys, etc.

When he is being disciplined he would not listen and would refuse to do what is asked of him.

My wife tried to do the opposite and reward him with baseball cards because he really likes them. I’ve tried to take away the cards as punishment but it doesn’t help.

We feel like his behavior is in a downward spiral and we can’t turn it around.

My wife has been trying to ignore him when he talks back, curses, hits, spits on the floor but I want to discipline him right away so he knows what is acceptable. But that just adds fuel to the fire.

We are really frustrated and at our wits end.

What can we do?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Joe Oct 21 at 12:21
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As to your differences in approach, I'm inclined to side with your wife, but it seems none of you have found something that really works.

To a child, the fundamental award from a parent is attention. Thus, we reinforce the behavior that we grant attention. This holds for negative attention as well. So a general rule of thumb that is commonly cited is reward the desirable behavior, and ignore the undesirable behavior. This explains your experience of adding fuel to the fire. (A key difference to understand: as opposed to your title, your child does respond to your disciplinary actions, only not in the way you were hoping, and this is normal.)

But there are certainly beahviors, such as hitting, that we wouldn't want to pass unnoticed entirely. Another common take on that same idea is that for every one time you scold your child for doing something you don't like, you should strive to find five opportunities to praise your child for doing something you do like. This allows you to communicate clearly when you don't find a certain behavior acceptable, while at the same time making sure that the desirable behavior is more rewarding to the child (i.e. gets the child more attention from you).

Try to always use a personal language. Don't say "we don't spit on the floor in this house", because your child may not understand and value that rule. Instead, say, "when you act this way, it makes me sad" and "when you spit on the floor, I have to clean that up, because a clean house is important to me. And all the time I spend cleaning up after you, is time we could have spent playing." Those are adverse events that your child can relate to, and adhere to your rules not because they're the rules you've laid down, but because they make sense and seem desirable.

I generally find punishment to be both exceptionally ineffective (due to the disproportionate attention given to an undesirable behavior) and often cruel, so that's something I'll always recommend you avoid. Natural consequences that follow logically from the child's actions are more tolerable, to me. Don't say "you hit a child so I'm removing your baseball cards". Say "You can't hit other children. That makes them sad, and they won't want to play with you. And I can't have you play with other children if you're hitting them. Then we'll have to stay at home. I think that would be really sad."

Do let your child know what is acceptable. Avoid doing it in a manner that rewards the child with unproportional attention for unacceptable behavior.

When I say reward the behavior you want, I'm still talking about attention being the reward. I think bribes are also undesirable, although less so than punishment. I believe it teaches the child to expect a gift for something you want them to comply with out of free will, and I believe it's subject to inflation, where a parent might think have an idea of phasing out the reward over time, the child will likely come to expect the reward and instead require more (just as you might expect a salary increase once a year or so, for continuing to do the same job, rather than tolerating having your salary slowly phased out). The reward should preferrably be that you're telling the child how it makes you happy when he gets along well with others, and how you now have time to play with him because you don't have any cleaning up to do.

There is another rule of thumb that simply asserts that kids do well if they can. Examine the situations where your child is displaying an undesired behavior, and ask yourself if your demands are exceeding the child's abilities. That could be demanding an age-inadequate level of abstract thinking, to understand why an unspat floor is preferable, or expecting them to follow a verbal instruction of many words and complex structure that is simply too hard for them to parse. Or simply, expecting them to have the stamina to behave well after a day of many activities, or asking them to endure something that is simply too boring for them to handle.

As the adult, it is your responsibility that your interactions with the child are constructive. Do you need to talk in easier sentences? Do you need to provide more rest before a taxing activity? Do you need to guide your child through dealing with their feelings when they feel wronged?

  • Question: After looking into some information on your country, do you have any links or official resources to add to your post for further research? It looks like you are advocating for a domain of action that excludes any negative consequences and instead focuses on positive reinforcement and an explicit denial of positive reinforcement as the replacement for a negative consequence. I'm especially curious about a breakdown of these concepts as official parenting literature or training that your country provides to it's parents who are given training for failing to parent correctly, – Adam Heeg Oct 13 at 11:50
  • @Adam: I'm not really informed on how or whether we provide training to failing parents. I guess there would be some intermediate steps before social services removes a child from your custody, but I can't comment on their details, and I don't really see how that feeds into this discussion. Nothing in my answer deals with corporal punishment, which is what we were discussing in comments, as I didn't read that into the question, and just assumed it was off the table. Corporal punishment is illegal in Sweden, yes, but the above is not an official government response, it's what I think works. – David Hedlund Oct 14 at 6:39
  • My approach to parenting draws heavily on the books of family therapist Jesper Juul, psychologist Bo Hejlskov and paediatrician Lars H Gustafsson, to name the most prominent. Out of which only Juul seems to be translated, which is a shame, I'd really recommend Heljskov's works. These are books on how to run a well-functioning family, what works and what's ethical. That literature is in no way "official". Government intervenes in cases of abuse (in which we include corporal punishment) and neglect, it doesn't micromanage families. – David Hedlund Oct 14 at 6:56
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Based on what I saw of my twin brother's behavior while we were growing up: a six year old that hits could grow up to be a teenager that lashes out and potentially a husband that is abusive. The behavior you describe is flashing huge red flares, it is a problem and needs to be corrected while your son is still a child.

First and foremost, "Mom and Dad" need to get on the same page. What is okay, what is not. What is the punishment for this, what is it for that. Write it down. Agree to it. Do not consult or discuss it with your child -- he has zero input in these decisions. You are deciding a number of things:

  1. How do you want your child(ren) to behave (now, as young adults, as grown ups)?
  2. How do you want your homelife to be like (calm and orderly, unpredictably with outbursts and flare ups)?
  3. How do you see your relationship with eachother evolving? Family turmoil can rip a marriage apart. Make this about saving your family, not just getting your son to behave.
  4. Rewards should be discussed as well, but I would remove anything that you can buy as a reward. It might be fun to get but those rewards are fleeting and the reason you got it carries little weight. Rewards should be more like special events, time with parents, or long-term memories (trips to the beach, amusement park, or going to a movie). "You've been so good at dealing with your anger, that we are taking you ______!"
    (note: Do not tell him he cannot go somewhere because he isn't behaving. It will teach him that he can get out of doing things he doesn't want to do if he is "bad".)
  5. Determine where the child learned this behavior. Does he attend some type of daycare? Have a babysitter or in-home care taker (other tham his Mother)? Those are things that should be addressed as well. Either by replacing the daycare, sitter, etc. -- or by insisting that they change the way they interact with your child.
    (note: "Bad behavior" could be completely unrelated to you, your spouse, or anything that happened in that moment. Your son may not be able to explain it in words, or may be embarrassed or afraid to tell you what is going on. Reassure him that you will listen when he is ready.)
  6. Figure out what is triggering the behavior, and
  7. Teach your son how to deal with the emotions that create frustration, disappointment, and anger. Give him the tools to understand and express himself in a more "socially acceptable" manner and he will carry those skills with him for the rest of his life.


Address issues one at a time, or a few at a time. So, first you want to dicide how to address the "biggest problem" or the "worst behaviors".

  • Hitting: What should his punishment be for lashing out, trying to hit (and kick) you?
    1. If you wrap your arms around him to prevent him from hitting, you should fully expect the legs to start swinging. The idea behind holding him is to get him to calm down. Don't release him until he stops struggling. But grabbing him while his arms are flailing can be tricky. Expect a punch or two before you gain control.
    2. If you spank, then you are just trying to grab an arm to prevent him from moving away, than planting a firm hand across his bottom.

  • Spitting: What should happen when he spits? Is his punishment based on where or when he spits?
    1. If he spits into a commode or trash can? Is that acceptable?
    2. If he spits on the dinner table? Does he go without dinner?
    3. If he spits on the sidewalk? Is that maybe okay or not okay?
    4. If he spits at or on someone? What punishment would that merit?


Above all, communicate with eachother! After you decide on how to deal with the bad behavior, share your experiences with eachother. "Our son did a really good job dealing with his disappointment when he didn't get his way this afternoon." Or maybe he didn't and it was a hard day for everyone. That's when you discuss it with your son. "I heard you did good, I'm so proud of you!", "I heard you had a bad day, what happened?"

The hardest part was asking for help. Best of luck. :)



note: While every region is different, the current policy in the USA is that any "mark" left on a child that remains for more than one hour is labeled as "child abuse". Example: if the red marks from a spanking remain after an hour you have "gone too far".

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