Why Punishment Isn't Always Effective

Thursday - February 26, 2015

Many of us use punishment as a means of discouraging certain behaviors in children, but it may not be as effective as once thought.


Punishments have been a part of raising children for longer than any of us can remember. We can recall the times we misbehaved when we were younger, and the resulting punishments, and we can think of at least a few recent occasions when we’ve had to use a punishment to discourage misbehaviors in our own children.

Fortunately, punishments have gotten smarter over the years; instead of spanking, more parents tend to prefer restricting privileges or other serious, but less damaging punishments. However, recent insights show that punishment, in general, can sometimes be ineffective.

The fault lies in the premise of punishment; by associating a behavior with a negative consequence, we discourage future repetitions of the behavior. The logic is sound, but there’s a critical flaw. Implementing this makes the child focus on the consequences of an action, rather than the inherent qualities of the action itself. For example, if a child uses the stove without permission, he may be punished with a week without TV. This teaches the child that getting caught using the stove without permission will lead to no TV, rather than teaching the child that playing with the stove itself is a bad thing to do for a number of reasons.

While punishments can be effective for instilling discipline and enforcing rules, it’s better to teach a child to be accountable for his/her own actions. Using empathy and communication to connect with your child and explain why certain behaviors are bad, along with rewards for alternative good behaviors, can be more effective this way. When children can hold themselves accountable for their own actions, and when they want to cease a behavior for more reasons than just escaping punishment, they tend to perform better in both supervised and unsupervised situations.

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