The Problems with Punishments (Long Version)

The Problems with Punishments (Long Version)

Punishing children creates a number of problems, which, when taken together, can be both serious and counterproductive. In general, punishments are an invitation to trouble, and often carry with them significant, unintended, negative consequences. Punishments should therefore be avoided with all children, no matter their age. There are better ways than punishments for dealing with children’s unacceptable behavior. More about that later. First, let’s consider some of the problems with punishments.

1.   Punishments are often ineffective. Parents run out of things to take away. Children often reach a point where they just don’t care what punishment the parent imposes. Mountains of research over the  years conclusively demonstrate that positive consequences (rewards and appreciation) are far more effective than negative consequences (punishments) in influencing children to behave well. (This is true even with animals.) I have heard many, many parents in my classes say that punishments usually don’t deter anything. They just make things worse as the child becomes even more resistant or disobedient.

2.    Punishments are hurtful “power and control” tactics, and are really a form of bullying. In our culture the word “discipline” has come to mean “punishment.” The purpose of punishment is to inflict some kind of pain with the hope of both teaching a lesson and deterring future misbehavior. Unfortunately, it’s intended to teach children to behave properly by scaring them into submission. The real lesson that punishment teaches, then, is that when someone doesn’t do what you want, you try to hurt them and/or scare them into submission to your will. Parents are in many ways more powerful than children, and parents who punish use their power to “bully” the child into submission.

3.   Through punishments children learn to bully. Children learn what they experience and what their parents model.  Thus, punishments really teach them the wrong lesson: namely, “I’ll hurt you if you don’t give in to my will.” This is not only bullying, but also the perfect recipe for creating a bully. Ever wonder why bullying in schools is so widespread? Or why stronger siblings bully weaker ones? Perhaps it’s because parents routinely bully children with punishments and thus inadvertently teach children that it’s okay to hurt someone weaker than you in order to get them to bend to obey you. On the other hand, children raised by parents who use little punishment, but instead use more effective interpersonal skills in response to misbehavior, are not likely to bully weaker peers or siblings.

4.   Beyond bullying, children learn that violence is acceptable. American society is perhaps the most violent society in the world. Could it be that a major contributing factor is the way we raise our children, by using varying degrees of violent behavior from verbal bullying to physical abuse, to “beat them into submission”? I am referring here to verbal bullying and abuse as well as physical, and I’m calling all of it a form of violence against children. And it is completely unnecessary.

5.    Inflicting pain is not a loving act.  The end does not justify the means. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Rather than seeing a child’s misbehavior as an expression of his needs for autonomy and independence, or his need to vent anger, the parent who punishes sees only bad behavior and uses his/her power to inflict pain in an attempt to reduce or eradicate it. However, children are by definition immature, and their methods of getting their needs met or of expressing anger are likely to be self-centered, immature, and primitive. Isn’t this to be expected? Their misbehavior is often the result of a self-centered attitude that causes pain or injury to others–perhaps unintended, perhaps intended. In any event, children need to be taught to express themselves in loving ways that do not harm others. And parents need to be the ones who do the teaching.

6.    Punishments make parents the enemy, not the ally. In the eyes of the child, the parent is now the bad guy who, by inflicting pain, unwittingly invites from the child an anger response and a desire for “payback.” This has the effect of the parent inviting exactly what s/he does not want: greater defiance, more disobedience, and continued unacceptable behavior. The child learns to fight back by “pushing the parent’s buttons,” which is her way of using her own unrefined power to express anger and to bully the parent.

7.    Inflicting pain on children causes guilt reactions in parents. This is a powerful indicator that there is something inherently wrong with inflicting pain with punishments. Yet many Old School parenting experts and authors recommend it anyway, and expect parents to tolerate their guilt by going against what they instinctively know and feel. Inflicting pain is not a loving act, no matter how you cut it. I say, “Let your conscience be your guide.” If your behavior creates a guilt response in you, then you might just be doing the wrong thing, by your own standards. Your own conscience, your Higher Self, is telling you something important. Thank God you can feel it! A small percentage of sociopathic parents abuse and harm their children because they have no conscience and feel no guilt, and don’t know a better way. Don’t let Old School parenting experts talk you into acting like a sociopath.

8.    Punishments encourage children to get better at hiding their misbehaviors. I doubt very much that children who are treated with respect by their parents, and who are taught how to care about others by their parents, will turn to bullying younger, weaker, or more timid peers. To the contrary, children whose parents have the ability use to misbehaviors as occasions for teaching children better relationship skills will actually learn a better way.

9.   Parents punish because they don’t know a better way. In other words, when parents punish, they show their ignorance. Now, ignorance is not a bad thing, and I’m not blaming parents for being ignorant. It just means they haven’t learned something better. Parents raised by Old School, power-and-control parents, and taught by Old School power-and-control experts, quite naturally haven’t learned alternatives to Old School methods, even though those methods may not feel right or may be counterproductive. They need to learn a way of dealing with children’s misbehaviors that teaches children how they affect others and how to get their needs met in socially acceptable ways.

10.   Parents rationalize that punishments are not only necessary but beneficial. Many parents in my classes argue that punishments are good. Their own parents used them, and they turned out fine. They maintain that punishments did indeed deter their bad behavior, and they say they learned important life lessons from punishments. To that I say, “Are those methods working with your children?” They usually say “No.” Beyond this, many say they have not had a good relationship with their parents, evan as adults, due largely to the way they were treated. The lesson here is that as Old School, power and control methods, punishments may be effective in the short term, but they often produce long-term damage to the parent-child relationship. What parent would knowingly invite that?

11.   Punishments can relieve a child of guilt for doing wrong. In many cases punishments have what on the surface appears to be a short-term advantage: children often feel they deserve to be punished, after which they feel relieved. What could be wrong with that? While societal punishment after a crime may have merit as a deterrent with criminals who feel no remorse, it’s not that way with children in the family. A pattern of a) lack of self-control, b) guilt, c) punishment, and d) relief may inculcate a desire, based on fear, of not getting caught next time. But does it teach the child why what he did is wrong?

12.   Punishments do not exact from the child a commitment to do better next time. Punishment might relieve guilt, but where is the personal commitment to do better next time? Finding relief for guilt through punishment is a sorry substitute for a child learning empathy, respect, self-control, and effective relationship skills.

At the beginning of this section I mentioned that there are better ways than punishments for dealing with children’s unacceptable behavior. What are they? I referred several times to the answer: effective relationship skills. If parents really want to teach children appropriate behaviors and how to be caring, responsible, and cooperative, then teaching them to develop effective relationship skills is the way to do it.

So, what are these effective relationship skills? And how is a parent to teach them? In this book I am presenting parents with nine key relationship skills–three listening skills, three illustrating (speaking) skills, and three disciplining skills. Parents who already use them well naturally, or learn to use them by practicing them, will almost assuredly teach them to their children. Why? Because children learn to do what they see their parents doing.

The long and the short of it comes down to this: instead of rules and punishments (the Old School approach) I am proposing agreements and accountability (the New School approach). I’m arguing that parents who effectively use listening skills and illustrating skills can then effectively use discipline skills–one of which is holding the child accountable for misbehavior that breaks their own agreement with the parent.

So, take heart! You can stop using punishments, just as you can stop using other power and control tactics, like yelling. I always say that practicing techniques equals developing skills. By practicing the techniques presented in this book you will learn and also teach the relationship skills that make punishments unnecessary. And that learning and teaching is what discipline is all about.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

Learn more.    Table of Contents & Intro