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9 Critical Reasons Why Punishment Doesn’t Work for Your Child

| What is punishment | Why punishment doesn’t work | Misconceptions about punishment |

Parents are often surprised and frustrated when punishment fails to motivate their children. There are many critical 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 a 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 proper behavior and the social rules of our society.

Although punishment is a form of discipline, it is neither the only form nor an effective technique.

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 even harder, things quickly escalate into a coercive cycle, which not only fails to correct bad behavior, but also promotes oppositional behavior.

boy sits in a corner buries head

Why punishment doesn’t work

Here is a long list of reasons why punishment doesn’t work. One might wonder why it even works in some rare cases.

It doesn’t teach the right 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 behavior can affect others​1​.

It incentivizes maladaptive behavior

Children, or humans, naturally want to avoid punishment. While doing exactly what their parents want is a good way 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 avoid the behavior you are trying to stop​2​.

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 conscience or emotion regulation skills. Children who lack an inner guiding system are less likely to maintain self-control and make positive moral choices without parental supervision​3​.

It impedes learning new behavior

Punishment provokes fear and emotional learning, as well as hindering cognitive learning​4​.

Fear triggers the release of stress hormones that inhibit the prefrontal cortex from functioning. So when parents use fear to teach, their children literally cannot learn the lesson even if they want to​5​.

It models aggression

Harsh parenting methods, such as corporal punishment, teach children that aggression, cruelty or rigidity is the best solution to problems. 

Countless studies have shown that children who receive punishment are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, the kind of behavior parents want to avoid​6​.

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 children​7​.

It doesn’t address the reason for misbehavior

Disobedient children may misbehave for valid reasons. Punishment 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 may also be less likely to adopt the desired behavior​8​.

It reduces intrinsic motivation to behave

The Self-determination Theory is a compelling theory that explains why punishment doesn’t work. 

Punishment takes away the child’s autonomy, one of the three innate psychological needs. It creates extrinsic motivation but reduces intrinsic motivation to behave​9​.

Punishment of children may result in temporary compliance, but such extrinsic motivation is not sustainable in the long run. If parents cannot punish undesired child behaviors every time they occur, the effects on children will eventually disappear​10​.

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.

To not punish 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?

Penalizing children is not only ineffective, but can also have a negative long-term impact on their mental health​11​.

There are alternative discipline techniques that are effective and non-punitive. Disciplinary tools, such as natural consequences, positive discipline, positive reinforcement, etc. can help you teach children to make better behavioral choices.

Check out how to discipline a child and raise well-adjusted, healthy children.

References

  1. 1.
    Eisenberg N, Schaller M, Fabes RA, Bustamante D, et al. Differentiation of personal distress and sympathy in children and adults. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1988:766-775. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.24.6.766
  2. 2.
    Wilson AE, Smith MD, Ross HS. The Nature and Effects of Young Children’s Lies. Social Development. Published online February 2003:21-45. doi:10.1111/1467-9507.00220
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    Kochanska G, Aksan N. Children’s Conscience and Self-Regulation. J Personality. Published online December 2006:1587-1618. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2006.00421.x
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    Blair HT, Sotres-Bayon F, Moita MAP, Ledoux JE. The lateral amygdala processes the value of conditioned and unconditioned aversive stimuli. Neuroscience. Published online January 2005:561-569. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2005.02.043
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    Shansky RM, Lipps J. Stress-induced cognitive dysfunction: hormone-neurotransmitter interactions in the prefrontal cortex. Front Hum Neurosci. Published online 2013. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00123
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    Eron LD, Walder LO, Toigo R, Lefkowitz MM. Social Class, Parental Punishment for Aggression, and Child Aggression. Child Development. Published online December 1963:849. doi:10.2307/1126531
  7. 7.
    Maag JW. Rewarded by Punishment: Reflections on the Disuse of Positive Reinforcement in Schools. Exceptional Children. Published online January 2001:173-186. doi:10.1177/001440290106700203
  8. 8.
    Hofmann W, De Houwer J, Perugini M, Baeyens F, Crombez G. Evaluative conditioning in humans: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Published online May 2010:390-421. doi:10.1037/a0018916
  9. 9.
    Vansteenkiste M, Lens W, Deci EL. Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Goal Contents in Self-Determination Theory: Another Look at the Quality of Academic Motivation. Educational Psychologist. Published online March 2006:19-31. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4101_4
  10. 10.
    Benabou R, Tirole J. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Rev Econ Studies. Published online July 2003:489-520. doi:10.1111/1467-937x.00253
  11. 11.
    Rodriguez CM. Parental Discipline and Abuse Potential Affects on Child Depression, Anxiety, and Attributions. J Marriage and Family. Published online November 2003:809-817. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00809.x

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