According to Markham, this general principle also applies to time-outs and groundings. Sometimes, though, restrictions might be in order. For instance, if a teen violates a no-video-games-during-the-week rule, Markham says, a parent might want to respond with something cooperative like, “Playing video games was more important to you than keeping your word to me—so we aren’t going to play them until we are back in a state of trust with each other.” The idea is to emphasize that something has been broken—trust, or maybe a rear bumper—that it’s the child’s job to help repair.
Sharna Olfman, a professor of psychology at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, presents another way of thinking about “go to your room”: She told me about the importance of a parent’s goal in saying it. “Is my intention to send you to your room to give you time to calm down and do some reflection,” she says, “or is it more of an assertion of authority?” The former approach might be useful, but the latter, especially if taken out of anger or frustration, doesn’t provide as much permission for a child to discuss their feelings.
Meanwhile, Brett Laursen, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University, raised a more practical point about the limits of saying “go to your room.” “Lots of children have hundreds if not thousands of dollars’ worth of electronic equipment and games in their room,” he told me, “which doesn’t exactly make going to your room much of a punishment.”
So if “go to your room” comes with all these issues, why do parents keep saying it? Olfman offered one explanation: There’s comfort in the idea of a “one-size-fits-all solution” for the complex problem of a misbehaving child. Markham offered another: Many parents are “uncomfortable with their kids’ [negative] emotions,” she says, “so they try to shut them down or revert to punishment” instead of talking them through.
Laursen stressed to me that “generally speaking, if you want young children to learn limits, you have to use some form of punishment,” and that’s especially true of toddlers, who almost instinctively probe the bounds of propriety.
“Go to your room” is just one of the ever-changing ways parents punish their kids. “Parents are wisely tailoring their punishments to what children find aversive,” he says, “and taking away your phone right now is very aversive for a lot of children.” Several decades ago, parents turned much more readily to spanking (though, remarkably, about one-fifth of parents polled in one 2010 survey said they still spanked—and 10 percent reported that they paddled).
Spanking has had a long history. “In the 17th century, there were theorists who argued that the buttocks had been created precisely so that we could spank—that that was their biological purpose,” said Steven Mintz, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. In early America, corporal punishment was thought of as necessary for a class of humans deemed incapable of reason. Puritans in particular, he said, thought that “kids needed to be tamed…the same way animals are.”
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