Here’s why you should stop punishing your kids: because punishment, unfortunately, doesn’t work.
This isn’t just my opinion. It’s also the belief of the behaviorist movement, created by B.F. Skinner. He said that punishment works temporarily but as soon as the punishment is removed, the behavior comes back.
“Although punishing responses at the beginning of an extinction curve reduced the momentary rate of responding, the rate rose again when punishment was discontinued and that eventually all responses came out. The effect of punishment was a temporary suppression of the behavior, not a reduction in the total number of responses.”
In Psychology Today, PhD Michael Karson cites a study where a rat is rewarded for pressing a lever. After a while, the reward is removed. Whether or not the rat is punished with an electric shock for pressing the lever after that, or simply not rewarded, the rat presses the lever the same number of times. The rat does become more cautious in pressing the lever, but doesn’t reduce the number of presses.
In human terms, children learn to become more cautious, aka sneaky, in their misbehavior… but they don’t stop doing it.
Thus, from a simple behaviorist perspective – working with any mammal, not just small humans – punishment just simply isn’t effective. And if it won’t work, why bother?
Of course, it can be satisfying – let’s be honest! – to finally see our child react to our frustration when we punish them. But the negative emotion we see is anger, resentment, or sadness about the punishment, not a genuine regret for their behavior.
And I think that for most of us, we would agree that we would prefer not to punish just for our own satisfaction. We’d like our child to be learning something, too.
So how can we help our children learn to curb their negative impulses?
One particular method of punishment is still thought to help children learn, time outs.
But if we think about what a time out teaches – “if you exhibit this unwanted behavior, you’ll be exiled from the family” – I think we would all agree that this is hardly the message we want to teach our beloved, if exasperating, children.
Time outs are not a natural consequence. A natural consequence is, if you refuse to eat dinner, you’ll be hungry at bedtime. If you refuse to wear mittens outside in the snow, you’ll have cold hands. If you throw a wooden block at your sister, the wooden block will be taken away.
One way to know if something is a natural consequence versus a punishment: is the link between the unwanted behavior and the consequence perfectly obvious, without an explanation? Losing TV for a week because you hit your brother – the connection here is less than clear. But being hungry at bedtime because you decided not to eat dinner – well, that’s pretty clear cut. If your child says he’s hungry in this scenario, you can be perfectly sympathetic… and you don’t need to solve the problem for him. It’s a perfectly clear learning opportunity.
Natural consequences are highly effective.
It’s hard for parents to stay out of the way in this scenario, though! Why is it easier to take away TV for a week than to let a child go to bed hungry? I would argue the difference is in our own emotional state – we remove TV privileges when we are angry, but we are rational and sad when our child complains pitifully of hunger at bedtime.
Therefore, if you want to teach a lesson but aren’t sure what the lesson should be… WAIT. Wait until you are cooled off before you make a decision.
Misbehavior is not an emergency. You can always say, “I am feeling really angry right now and I need some time to cool off before I talk to you about it.” I would argue this is actually a highly effective move, because a child would much rather be punished than wait to find out what is happening with us!
Which brings me to another point: punishment lets your child off the hook. If you take away TV for a week because your son hit his sister, your son’s emotions are going to be focused on how angry he is at you for taking away his beloved shows. Instead of the desired result, focusing on his behavior.
If, on the other hand, you say, “I’m so upset about you hitting your sister that I need some time alone to think about it,” your child is a lot more likely to be upset about your upset and therefore, to reflect on his behavior.
Your child is also a lot more likely to actually hear the lesson you want to teach if it is coming from a place of love and connection. That’s why it’s always better to connect first and teach [much] later. Your child is highly motivated to earn your love and approval. Once they feel secure in that, they are more open to learning.
A story from my own life from yesterday. I was busy working downstairs and not paying much attention to my children. Suddenly, I heard a splash of water from upstairs. And then a whole lot of trickling water. Not the bathroom, but our upstairs living room. Uh oh.
It turns out that my allegedly precious children decided to throw a bucket of water on the floor to see what would happen.
Normally, I would be furious and start to rage at them, but I was stuck on a customer service call and couldn’t attend to them right away. My partner went upstairs to start cleaning, and asked the children to help.
Abashed, Calliope began to quietly clean but Amelie, our highly reactive six-year-old, began to rage and cry at the unfairness of this “punishment” because none of the mess, supposedly, was her fault.
Cleaning up their mess would seem like a perfectly natural consequence but in this scenario, Amelie was already feeling disconnected and full of shame, and thus, could not absorb the lesson, that we need to clean up when we make a mess.
When I got off the phone -- having had time to reflect on how I wanted to react -- I went upstairs to help. I drew Amelie between my knees and wrapped my arms around her. Her rage quickly melted into tears… but in less than a minute, she was calm and cheerful about helping to clean up, without my saying a word. She just needed reassurance that she was still loved! Imagine if we had sent her for a time out in her room instead! Her rage and sadness would only have been worsened by the separation.
I was lucky that my partner started to clean up with them while I was on my call, and that I had time to prepare myself for the mess and my emotional reaction to it. Mess is very triggering for me. We parents, whether single or partnered, don’t always have this lucky opportunity! For sure, I am not always this serene. (Also yesterday: I shouted at my child for screaming in my ear – loud noises are also very triggering for me. So I far from perfect.)
But it was an inspring experience for me, getting to see that getting angry wouldn’t have helped, but staying calm absolutely did help in both getting Amelie to help clean up and accepting responsibility for her actions. She is still talking about how proud she is for helping to clean up the mess she made.
Another move I like – one I often suggest to clients – are “time ins.” Instead of sending your child away, take her away from the scene… and stay with her. Offer to hold him and to take deep breaths together, but if he’s too angry for comfort, stay anyway and stop talking. Just take a deep breath and do your own deep breathing and look at the floor. Seriously, don't engage at all. Just wait. If you can just keep your thoughts to yourself, he’ll scream and rage... and then seek you out in a minute or two. Then later, much later, like the next day, talk to him about what happened.
Parenting is not easy. For any of us. Our children are quick studies in how to press our buttons. But taking a deep breath before acting is never a bad idea. Once we are calm, we can think rationally about the best way to aid our child in learning from the inevitable learning opportunity.
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Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.