Why Punishment Isn't the Answer

18 December, 2019
Punishment leads children to blind obedience and fear and fails to teach them values. Today, we'll talk more about why punishment isn't the answer.

Today we’re here to tell you why punishment isn’t the answer when it comes to modifying your children’s undesirable habits and behaviors.

The art of raising our children isn’t something we can afford to take lightly. And yes, it is an art… After all, we’re taking part in the process of the creation and development of a human being, no less. We’re setting the foundation for their future personalities.

What is punishment?

First of all, we need to define what we’re talking about when we say the word punishment. Punishment falls into a branch of psychology known as behavioral psychologyMore specifically, it’s within the realm of operant conditioning which American psychologist B.F. Skinner first developed.

According to this line of psychology, the consequences that follow our behaviors are what mold or condition those behaviors. In other words, if reinforcement follows a behavior, then we’ll be prone to repeat it. However, if punishment comes after a behavior, then we’re less likely to behave in the same way again.

Now, we need to consider the two main types of punishmentPositive punishment is what most often comes to mind when we think of the term punishment. It consists of “giving” or imposing something unpleasant after a behavior that we want to eliminate takes place. This may mean scolding, spanking, slapping, grounding, sending children to their rooms, or some other adverse stimulus.

On the other hand, negative punishment involves removing or taking away something pleasant as a consequence to undesirable behavior. This may be a material item – like taking away video games– or something emotional, like not paying attention to your child.

Why Punishment Isn't the Answer

Why do we resort to punishment?

Parents and teachers have been using this educational method for generations. What’s more, countless adults defend the virtues of punishment within the relationship between parent and child. 

So, why is punishment such an attractive and popular method?

  • The effects are immediate. Punishment proves to be effective when it comes to reducing the frequency of inappropriate behavior, at least for the time being.
  • It’s what we experienced during our own childhood. Many parents who today adhere to punishment as a corrective method received the same from their own parents as children. It’s the type of interaction they’ve seen throughout their lives and they’ve come to internalize it.
  • It gives us a sense of authority or power over our children when they’re behaving in an undesirable fashion.
  • Punishment is quick and easy to put into practice. It doesn’t require a great time investment or a lot of explanation. All we have to do is give or take away whatever we’ve chosen as punishment.

Why punishment isn’t the answer

However, despite the conveniences that the method of punishment offers, punishment isn’t the answer and it’s not the best tool to employ. Punishment is based on blind obedience. The end product is children who modify their behavior only “so mom won’t yell at me” or “so dad won’t take away my TV time.”

For many, this is a sign of success – proof that punishment is effective. However, it fails to produce positive learning. Children don’t internalize any values nor do they come to understand why they should be responsible for their actions.

While it may be hard to believe, punishment conveys the idea that “I’m the one who calls the shots around here”… This produces a sense of humiliation in children, which can lead to very negative consequences:

  • This dynamic causes children to lose trust in their parents, given that they don’t feel their parents are treating them respectfully. It can produce anger, a need for revenge, and a rift between children and their parents.
  • Punishment damages children’s self-esteem, inhibits their spontaneity, and produces dependency on the person “in charge.” This then causes children to lose initiative and avoid making decisions (because they’re afraid they may choose incorrectly)
  • Finally, it can produce tension, aggressiveness, and lying. This is a result of the fact that punishment fails to teach profound lessons or produce values. Children learn to modify their behavior out of personal convenience and simply try no to get caught.
Why Punishment Isn't the Answer

Positive discipline: An alternative to punishment

So, we’ve made it clear that punishment isn’t the answer. But then, how should we guide our children and teach them good values?

Positive discipline offers us a very valuable alternative. It’s based on studies by Adler and Dreikurs and on the Positive Discipline books by Jane Nelson. Here we find a child-raising method that places emphasis on the importance of being respectful and valuing the dignity of children.

From this perspective, we can help children develop their own sense of responsibility and valuesAs a result, they’ll act in accordance with those values. What’s more, they’ll be more able to manage their emotions and to reflect on the natural consequences of their actions.

So, let’s raise our children with respect, love, and model what we want them to imitate. Let’s take time to understand and validate the feelings behind the behaviors of our children, even when we think they’re inappropriate.