Discipline vs Punishment
Discipline – one of the most common and toughest challenges of parenthood. It’s probably the least enjoyable part of parenting. It can be frustrating, discouraging and exhausting.
As parents, we are often unsure how to effectively respond to misbehavior or to elicit compliance. Many of us respond in the heat of the moment using ineffective strategies such as yelling, threatening or punishing.
Some of them work (in the eyes of the parents) and some don’t. Some of them work for a while but the effects do not last.
Some parents think different children need different disciplinary styles. There are a variety of opinions on this topic.
But what does science say about discipline?
Here is a famous conditioning experiment done by Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov.
A dog salivated when it was being fed.
So Pavlov came up with an experiment. Whenever he gave food to his dogs, he also rang a bell. After repeating this procedure a number of times, he rang the bell on its own.
Now the bell on its own caused an increase in the dog’s salivation1.
This experiment showed that the dog had learned to associate the bell with food and a new behavior was formed. This is called classical conditioning. The bell was originally a neutral stimulus but then became a conditioned stimulus. The salivation was a conditioned response.
Based on this result, it seems natural to conclude that if a negative consequence is associated with an undesirable behavior, a dog, or even a child, will eventually learn to stop doing it due to the fear of negative consequences.
To understand whether this theory applies to human children, we need to know more about the human brain.
The Triune Brain
Neurologists2 believe that a person has a triune brain consisting of “three brains” (three brain regions).
Each of these brains evolved from a different time period in history and serves a different purpose3.
The three brains are:
Reptilian brain exists the longest in evolution, for around 300 million years. It is very similar to those in all other animals such as reptiles which are the oldest in existence.
Reptilian brain controls bodily functions such as breathing, heart beat, digestion, fight or flight reaction and other survival functions without our conscious effort.
Mammalian brain (Limbic)
Also known as Limbic or the lower brain, mammalian brain evolved around 200 million years ago. It also exists in other mammals and therefore, the name “mammalian”.
Limbic is responsible for strong emotions such as fear, rage, separation anxiety, caring, nurturing, etc.
Human brain is also called the thinking brain, neocortex, frontal lobe or the upper brain. This brain is what sets human apart from other animals. It exists only in primates and among them, human has the most developed one.
The human brain is where learning, reasoning, problem-solving, decision-making or sophisticated thinking takes place.
Compared to other animals, human has the extra capability to think because of this thinking brain.
Fear And The Brain
How do human brains react to fear?
Let’s say, you are hiking in the wild and suddenly, a large animal jumps out in front of you. What would you do?
If you are like most people, you would instinctively take a step back without thinking. Then, on a closer look, you notice that it’s only a playful and friendly dog and so you relax.
So what happened in the brain?
In Limbic, there’s a little alarm (amygdala) that can react to danger without first going through the thinking brain. When this alarm sets off, stress hormone (cortisol) is released so that the body is equipped to fight back or get away quickly.
In this case, the stress hormone allows us to promptly take a step back.
This fight-or-flight mechanism is built for survival. It happens without our conscious decision making. Our brain takes a shortcut to bypass the thinking brain because thinking takes longer.
When facing a potentially life-or-death situation, we can’t afford to analyze. We act first and then contemplate whether the large object is really an attacking animal later.
Punishment – Discipline Using Fear
Young children, especially toddlers and preschoolers, get into trouble a lot. They are curious, they are ambitious and they are fearless.
But they don’t know how the world works or how they are expected to behave. They also don’t understand reasoning that well.
In order to discipline, many parents frequently resort to using fear or coercive measures such as corporal punishment, punitive time-out or berating.
They hope that the punishment will condition their children to fear the consequence and therefore change or abandon the undesired behavior, much similar to dogs being conditioned to change their behavior.
The danger of using fear as the method of choice for discipline is manifold.
1. Stress Hormone Elevation
When fear is presented frequently, the chronic elevated level of stress hormone will cause serious health problems for the child in the long run4 — brain shrinkage leading to memory and learning difficulties, suppressed immune system, hypertension, depression and anxiety disorder just to name a few5.
2. Mental Disorders
As discussed, when fight-or-flight mechanism is invoked, the Limbic brain takes over and the thinking brain goes offline.
If the event is life-threatening or causes intense fear, a special memory is also created and stored separately (hippocampus) from other types of memory6. This type of memory is etched in our brain and makes us feel miserable to ensure we will avoid it in the future7.
So it does seem like fear can condition us to change our behavior.
Because the creation of this special memory (and the recall of it) does not need permission from our thinking brain, it is hard to avoid the harmful mental effects.
To parents, being harshly punished may not appear to be a life-and-death situation that can result in intense fear. For grownups, if we’re hit or yelled at by someone, we may be able to recover quickly. We can vent to friends, distract ourselves with other activities or stop seeing that person again.
Our world is full of options.
But for children, especially younger ones, the parents are their entire world. Parents are the main or sole providers for food, safety and all other necessities.
Children have no choice when it comes to choosing their own caretakers.
It’s about survival and it is life-or-death.
And let’s not forget, from a child’s perspective, adults are huge physically, almost like giants. To them, harsh treatment by caretakers can and often do feel like a life threatening experience.
3. Emotional Regulation And Self-Control
Fear is not the only emotion that can cause our thinking brain to become disconnected. Other types of stress, such as anger or rage can, too.
Because a frequently punished (or threatened to be punished) child is constantly in an alarmed state, the child’s fight-or-flight reaction kicks in easily even when they face mild frustration. When that happens, the Limbic becomes in charge without the thinking brain’s participation and the child can react emotionally by acting out or having uncontrolled outbursts. They cannot effectively regulate their emotions.
Emotional Regulation and self-control are some of the most important skills young children should learn.
A family’s influence on the child’s ability to acquire such a skill is paramount12
Genetics (temperament) does play a part. But a child also learns to modulate emotions through observing their parents’ reaction. If parents are upset and harsh whenever the child makes a mistake, that is the emotional response they learn to have when negative situations arise in their life.
Is that the lesson you want your child to learn?
Emotion is also contagious. A punishment centric environment can induce persistent negative emotions in children making it even harder to self-regulate13.
4. Bidirectional Influence
Sometimes, punishment can create a self-fulling prophecy.
The impacts are bidirectional.
A child’s behavior and the parents’ responses can feed on each other and spiral into ever increasingly punitive punishments. This interaction can create an escalation of punitiveness to abusive level16.
5. Externalizing Behavior
Numerous studies have found that harsh or punitive punishments, especially those in the form of physical punishment, will lead to future aggression in children even though it may deter the child’s negative behavior in the moment17‘18‘19.
6. Become Bullies And/Or Victims
When parents try to change behavior by fear, they are modeling how to use superior positions or their larger sizes to intimidate. They are also normalizing such practice.
When these children go to school, some learn to do the same to other children who are weaker than them. Some become victims of bullies themselves because their parents’ action has shown them that such behavior is acceptable21. Sometimes, their parents’ behavior has also caused the children feel powerless in escaping or changing the situation.
7. Worse Academic Performance
The world’s longest running longitudinal Panel study started in 1968 by University of Michigan reveals the relationship between punitive discipline and children’s school performance.
Homes that use punitive discipline, such as punishment, lecturing or restricting activities (that are otherwise not affecting academic studies) are associated with lower academic achievement22 compared to homes that have warm parent-child interactions and use reasoning to teach.
Discipline Methods That Work
The chain of psychological events that leads to the development of a disciplined child is a complex process. Classical conditioning that works well for dogs simply does not work for human23. Even when it seems to work, the child has to pay a high price.
Using harsh punishment to fear-condition kids is ineffective at best and harmful at worst.
Unfortunately, punitive punishment is prevalent. This is because parents often get the immediate (although not long-lasting) behavioral change they want.
For many parents, punishing is also the only way they know how to discipline.
When talking to parents about the negative aspects of punishment, I often get the question, “If we don’t punish, how else can parents make their child behave?”
A Role Model
Have you noticed that when you make a certain move, your dog or cat does not imitate you, but your child may?
The ability to learn by observing and imitating others is unique in human24. Scientists discovered a specific circuit of the brain, called the mirror neuron system, is responsible for that capability. This neuron system not only allows us to imitate others’ action but also understand the intentions of actions.
This discovery may partially explain why it is so important that parents model the behavior they want their children to have. Therefore,
- if you want your child to be respectful, you respect your child.
- if you want your child to be kind, you are kind to your child.
- if you don’t want your child to hit, you don’t hit your child.
- if you don’t want your child to be cruel to others, don’t be cruel to your child.
Discipline means to train or to teach. It doesn’t mean to punish. When parents focus on using punishment to discipline, the child learns to be vindictive and revengeful.
Punishment is often not necessary nor is it effective in disciplining children. Studies show that non-coercive discipline, contingent encouragement, monitoring and problem solving are far more effective in disciplining25.
But not punishing doesn’t mean there are no negative consequences. Parents can utilize positive discipline to help kids understand the natural consequences of their actions. Positive Discipline is based on mutual respect and positive instructions. It fosters learning instead of focusing on punishing. Here is how parents can discipline positively: Positive Parenting – 8 Tips To Discipline Your Kids The Happy Way.
Neuroscience has taught us that life experiences during the formative years are critical in a child’s brain development and character building. If we can fill our children’s lives with positive learning, they will benefit for life.
Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Wellbeing by Brian Luke Seaward ↩
Fear conditioning, synaptic plasticity and the amygdala: implications for posttraumatic stress disorder by Amy L. Mahan and Kerry J. Ressler ↩
Childhood maltreatment is associated with altered fear circuitry and increased internalizing symptoms by late adolescence. By Ryan J. Herringa, Rasmus M. Birn, Paula L. Ruttle, Cory A. Burghy, Diane E. Stodola, Richard J. Davidson, and Marilyn J. Essex ↩
Fear conditioning, synaptic plasticity and the amygdala: implications for posttraumatic stress disorder. By Amy L. Mahan, Kerry J. Ressler ↩
The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation. By Amanda Sheffield Morris, Jennifer S. Silk, Laurence Steinberg, Sonya S. Myers, Lara Rachel Robinson ↩
The Role of the Family Context in the Development of Emotion Regulation. By Amanda Sheffield Morris, Oklahoma State University, Jennifer S. Silk, University of Pittsburgh, Laurence Steinberg, Temple University, Sonya S. Myers and Lara Rachel Robinson, University of New Orleans ↩
The Child’s Behavioral Pattern as a Determinant of Maternal Punitiveness. By Raymond K. Mulhern, Jr. and Richard H. Passman http://www.jstor.org/stable/1128948?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents ↩
Parenting Practices and Child Disruptive Behavior Problems in Early Elementary School by Elizabeth A. Stormshak, Karen L. Bierman, […], and Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group ↩
There is no convincing evidence for operant or classical conditioning in adult humans. By Brewer, William F., Weimer, Walter B. and Palermo, David S. ↩
The Mirror Neuron System and Observational Learning: Implications for the Effectiveness of Dynamic Visualizations. By Tamara van Gog, Fred Paas, Nadine Marcus, Paul Ayres and John Sweller ↩