Parents are often surprised and frustrated when no punishment works for their children. There are many reasons why punishment doesn’t work. Knowing those reasons will enable parents to avoid the pitfalls.
What is punishment
Punishment is inflicting a penalty as retaliation for an offense. Common punishments for children include physical punishment, removal of privileges, or losing something they value.
To discipline is to teach children the appropriate way to act according to the social rules of our society.
Although punishment is a form of discipline, it is neither the only form nor an effective way to teach good behavior.
Sometimes when parents don’t get the results they want from punishing their children, they believe their children are stubborn and need more punishment.
If the child fights back harder, things quickly escalate into a coercive cycle, which not only fails to correct bad behavior but also promotes oppositional antisocial behavior.
Why punishment doesn’t work
Here is a long list of reasons why the effectiveness of punishment is questionable. One might wonder why it even works in some rare cases.
It doesn’t teach good behavior or the reason for it
Punishment takes the focus away from what a child should be doing or why they should do it.
It does not give the child tools to meet their needs in a different way.
Instead, it makes the child angry.
It directs the child’s attention to their own suffering and resentment rather than how their unwanted behavior can affect others1.
It incentivizes maladaptive behavior
Children, or humans, naturally want to avoid punishment.
While doing exactly what their parents want is one of the best ways to escape it, it is not the only way.
Children can “reserve” their offending behavior for when their parents are not around.
They can also actively contest the punishment or lash back at their parents creating a power struggle.
If kids are punished for making a poor choice, they may lie to avoid punishment, rather than stop the unacceptable behavior you are trying to stop2.
Most parents believe that punishing their children will help them achieve the first kind of result, but many children end up using other ways to avoid being punished.
It doesn’t promote conscience
Parent discipline is imperative to a child’s moral development.
However, punishment doesn’t help children develop a conscience.
It doesn’t teach them right from wrong or how to be a better person.
Children who lack moral standards are less likely to maintain self-control and do the right thing without parental supervision3.
It impedes learning new behavior
The threat of punishment provokes fear.
Fear triggers the release of stress hormones that inhibit the learning center in the brain (prefrontal cortex) from functioning.
So when parents use fear to teach, their children literally cannot learn the lesson even if they want to4.
Giving punishment hinders emotional and cognitive learning5.
It models aggression
Harsh punishment, such as corporal punishment, teaches children that aggression, cruelty, or rigidity is the best approach to problems.
Decades of research and countless studies have shown that physical punishment of children can lead to aggressive behavior, the kind of undesired behavior parents want to avoid6.
The use of physical punishment is counterproductive.
It encourages attention-seeking behavior
Paying attention, even if it is negative, is one of the most potent rewards to children. So punishment may serve as more of a reward reinforcing the negative behavior in children7.
It doesn’t address the reason for misbehavior
Disobedient children may misbehave for valid reasons.
Simply giving negative consequences does not address the underlying cause that may still exist, leading the child to repeat the same mistakes.
It creates negative emotions and damages relationships
Children who are repeatedly punished associate their negative emotions with the punisher and the behavior their parents demand.
This phenomenon is referred to as evaluative conditioning, a type of classical conditioning.
When the parent-child relationship is damaged, the child is less likely to listen to the parents. They are also less likely to adopt the desired behavior8.
Children who have damaged parent-child relationships are more likely to cut off their parents when they become adults.
It reduces intrinsic motivation to behave
The Self-determination Theory is a compelling theory that explains why punishment doesn’t work.
Punishment of children may result in temporary compliance in the short term, but such extrinsic motivation is not sustainable in the long run.
If parents cannot punish the child’s behavior every time they occur, the effects on children will eventually disappear10 (extinction).
It damages mental health
Penalizing children is not only ineffective but can also cause mental health problems in the long term11.
Cruel punishment may constitute child abuse and is associated with mental illness such as depression in teenagers12.
Misconceptions about punishment
The ideas of children not receiving punishment incite fears regarding coddling, letting kids off the hook, or becoming permissive parents. This cannot be farther from the truth.
Not punishing is not the same as not teaching, for that is what discipline is all about.
Take a moment to remember when you were still a student.
Which teacher did you learn more from? The one who was patient, caring, and helpful in building your confidence, or the one who was strict, unforgiving, and tearing you down when you made a mistake?
What to Do When Punishment Doesn’t Work
There are alternative discipline techniques that are effective and non-punitive.
Patience is needed especially when disciplining younger children.
Young children don’t master new skills overnight. They cannot be expected to behave perfectly while their cognitive brains are still developing.
Behaving out of fear or because it is right: It’s a choice parents make between convenience and moral development.
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