There are many mixed messages out in the world in regards to punishment, especially in the world of parenting. Whether you have a coffee table propped up by parenting books, are reflecting on the way you were raised, or talking with other parents about how they manage behavior, one thing you can be certain of is that everyone has an opinion. Some people say not to punish at all, others rule with an iron fist, and yet others straddle the line between punishment and non-punitive methods. As a therapist who offers family, teen, and child counseling, I often am asked to give our parenting advice about when and how to punish.
To complicate this question, it’s that the wealth of science regarding the use of punishment has deemed punishment as an ineffective way to change behavior. Now, I am not suggesting that punishments never be used. You may be saying to yourself, if I would have done “x,” my parents would have killed me, so that’s why I did not do “x.” Or you may be thinking, my parents beat my butt when I did “x” so that’s why I stopped doing “x.” In reality, children do need to have limits, and the world around us is full of punishment. Our children will have to navigate a world enforced by punishment one day. So sheltering them from a world governed by punishment may not be fully preparing them for life as an adult.
The danger, however, is relying on punishment as your only behavior management strategy. This is where the use of and/or over-reliance on punishments can cause problems. Also, some people unknowingly punish for reasons other than changing behavior or helping their children learn. Remember, the word discipline is not just about punishment. It has more to do with learning than anything else. That’s why different areas of study are called “disciplines.”
A hidden motivation for punishing someone may be due to a desire to maintain dominance and control over that person, not necessarily correcting a problematic behavior. Others punish out of a subjective sense of justice and respect. Whatever the case is, the most important aspect of changing a person’s behavior is that behavior, not necessarily your own reactions to that behavior. For example, suppose you have a rough day at work and have less patience than usual and come home to find that your child has broken some piece of property in your house. Now imagine that same scenario, except your day at work was great and you received a raise. How would your reactions to your child be different depending on what mood you were in? Consistency is a problem with punishments because when adults decide to punish, it is usually based more on their mood or lack of patience in that moment then what the child has actually done.
Punishing can also be reinforcing for the punisher because, sure, most people will stop what they are doing when punished. The problem is that after the punishment is over they go back to what they have been doing. This is because punishment does not teach and reinforce what behavior should be happening, it just stops a problematic behavior from occurring on a limited timeline (think speeding tickets). So when a person does punish and the behavior temporarily stops, people tend to think, “Hey, that worked, I’ll do that again!” Then when the punishment does not work again, the severity of the punishment increases until it does work, and thus the cycle of punishment goes.
Perhaps most importantly, before you punish, it is also imperative to understand why you feel the need to punish. We often feel the need to punish because we over or underestimate our expectations for our children and we then are trying to compensate for those mistakes. When you find yourself confused or troubled by a behavior, start by teaching yourself about child development. Check out the classic development series by Louise Bates Ames as a way to orient your expectations about what your child can and can’t do. As trainer extraordinaire, Karen Pryor points out, “So think, when you are tempted to punish: Do you want….to alter a given behavior? In that case, it’s a training problem, and you need to be aware of the weaknesses of punishment as a training device.”
However, if you are seeking greater authority as a parent, I suggest two ingredients. First, start with putting time and energy into relationship building activities. Those will pave the road for greater authority. And, second, be clear that your expectations are simple, clear and fit your child’s age. And as Alan Kazdin of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic states, “A parent’s measured, nonimpulsive, nonheated responses will earn respect, not the opposite.” (p. 129)
So the next time you ask yourself, is now the time to punish my child? Think along the lines of discipline rather than punishment. Ask yourself, what do I want to teach my child about this behavior now? And, what do I need to give to myself in this moment to be the best possible teacher about this particular behavior?
Kazdin, A. E. (2008). The kazdin method for parenting the defiant child; with no pills, no therapy, no contest of wills. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Pryor, K. (1999). Don’t shoot the dog!: The new art of teaching and training. New York, NY: Bantam Books.