The Problem With Punishment

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

What is discipline? How do you define it? For many, including myself at some point, discipline means to punish. You punish or discipline the child so they don’t continue the bad behavior. Most people use punishment and discipline interchangeably. Rewards are used in the same way, you reward a child for good behavior. When we try to resolve behavior challenges through the use of punishments and rewards, we are attempting to motivate our children externally. In other words, if you are a good boy and you clean up your room, you can have ice cream. The ice cream becomes the motivating factor and the child has not really learned why it is important to clean his room. In this article I’d like to address the problem with punishments in hopes that it will give parents insight on what punishment does as well as provide guidance in rethinking their discipline strategies. The origin of the word DISCIPLINE has the Latin root discipulus, which means pupil or student and disciplina which means instruction and knowledge. The goal of discipline should be to teach and to instruct our children. To truly discipline, we need to ensure that their motivation comes from an internal locus. Moments of discipline should be used to create teachable opportunities for our kids. As parents and educators, our goal is to raise children who have self-control, to be able to have self-regulating skills, and become effective decision makers. These are the skills we as parents, care-takers, and teachers must teach through discipline.

The following are the Four Criteria for Effective Discipline, modified from the work of Jane Nelsen, and can be used as a guide:

1. Your approach is respectful and kind yet firm at the same time. Be sure you are not putting the child down or giving an “I told you so” statement when disciplining. This first point takes practice, but a good rule of thumb is: don’t speak to the child in a way you would not speak to another adult. At the same time, stand firm on your rules and regulations. We want the child to feel that they were heard, but we don’t want them walking all over us. For example: A child who is crying for more sweets after he has already had his share. A kind and firm response might sound something like this, “I love you and I don’t want your tummy to hurt, I’ll save this for next time.” Although the child may continue to cry and ask for more candy, you communicating first and foremost that you love him/her and the reason behind why you will not allowing him to have another piece of candy. No need to yell, no need to give in. Be calm and be respectful.

2. Your approach does not alienate the child, on the contrary, creates a connection. You can connect by simply stating how the child might be feeling: “you were having so much fun with your friends and I know how sad you must feel to say goodbye to them, but it’s time for us to go home to rest our body so we can have energy to play with our friends again next time.” In this statement you are naming the feelings the child might be feeling as well as remaining respectful and firm. Not only are you teaching your child how to connect what he is feeling to words, you are also letting him know that you acknowledge that feeling.

3. Your approach is effective long-term. Rewards and punishments work in that moment and get the child to change the behavior in that moment, this is what makes rewards and punishments appealing and a popular weapon for parents. One of the biggest problems with using a rewards system as a form of discipline is that once the reward is no longer available, the behavior will reappear in full force. In other words, if you tell your child to clean up their room and you will go to Target and buy a shopkins toy, the child may very well comply. On another occasion you may ask your child to clean their room again without offering a toy, you will see that they will refuse to do the task or will start negotiating with you about what they get in return for doing what you have asked. Rewards are the carrot you wave in front of your kids to get them to behave a certain way and punishments scare or threaten kids to behave a certain way. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline and many other books on parenting, when we punish our kids by having them fear us or experience pain (physical or emotional) or anger, we activate their reactive brain (primitive or reptilian brain), thus causing kids to go into survival mode. In other words, children will do anything to avoid the pain of physical or emotional punishment as a survival mechanism. Often times this means lying, being sneaky, or becoming overly submissive to avoid that pain. They becoming better at hiding mistakes and wrong doings and eventually become rebellious.

4. Your approach assists in building good character and teaches valuable social skills (respect, kindness, problem solving, etc.). Another reason to stay away from a rewards and punishment approach is that it does not teach skills, they both appeal to your child’s external locus of control as opposed to their internal locus. There are many tools within Positive Discipline that can assist and help you in teaching skills while disciplining. Remember that your goal is not just to stop the behavior, but also to have teachable moments where you teach your child skills they will learn and use even when you are not there.

Here is something you can try at home: Create two lists. On the first list jot down all the challenges you face as a parent. On the second list write down characteristics and life skills you would like for your child to have 20 years from now. Take a good look at both lists, and ask yourself, how do I get from the challenges to the life skills and characteristics list? Is it by threatening, screaming, punishing, and offering to buy things for your child if they behave? Now match up your strategy of discipline to the 4 criteria above as well as the life skills list you created, how does it measure up? Does your strategy teach any of the skills you listed and resolve your challenges? This takes some self-reflecting which is not easy to do at times. Be gentle with yourself and remember, it’s a process. Rather than aiming for perfection, aim for small victories as you increase your parenting tools.

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