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Why punishment doesn't work

Buck Minor, the cowboy on our ranch, used to always say, "If you teach an animal a lesson by meanness or cruelty, don't be surprised if the animal remembers the meanness and cruelty and forgets the lesson!" His statement, for the first time, caused me to investigate the effectiveness of punishment as a tool for changing human behavior. Here's what I found when I conducted the investigation.

First, let's define punishment for the sake of our discussion: Punishment will be considered to be any artificially created consequence for a given behavior. (This definition would then include any spanking, grounding, sending to the bedroom, removal of privileges, withholding of allowance, timeout, etc.)

Punishment guarantees a "push-back" response in all of the following situations
(A "push-back" response is simply the natural human resistance to change. Any time that one attempts to change a child's behavior the child will resist. Add punishment and you will insure more resistance to change.)

Punishment removes the focus of both the "punisher" and "punished" from the behavior in question. When a parent resorts to punishment both the parent and the child begin to pay attention to the punishment, its fairness and its enforcement. This allows the child to stop thinking about the decision process that brought about the negative consequences in the first place. Next, the child is not engaged in creating a new thought process that will bring about better decisions and outcomes next time. A spanked child will think about how their fanny hurts and how they want to run away from home but seldom will think about how to behave appropriately.

Punishment focuses anger on the "punisher." When we resort to punishment it gives children someone else to be mad at or someone else to blame, and when they are mad they do not have to face their own behavior and consequences. The resulting anger interrupts responsible thought for both the child and parent. A child sent to his/her room will seldom or never think about how to behave properly but rather will think about how unfair his/her parents are or some equally negative idea.

Punishment induced behavior "extinguishes" rapidly
In the absence of punishment, the negative behavior returns. Behavior that has been shaped by punishment will disappear soon after the punishment has disappeared simply because the child has not been included in the reasoning and personal profitability in the desired behavior. A child who was spanked for running beside the pool will look around to see if anyone is watching and finding nobody will take off running. It becomes a game of not getting caught.

Punishment traps the "punisher" into maintaining the punishment schedule. "You made the rules, now you must enforce them." The goal should be to let the natural negative consequences of the child's behavior do the enforcing. When you introduce punishment, the child then may turn it into a game of seeing how much they can get away with without you catching them. A grounded teen will continuously ask to go out to constantly test the parent's will to follow through. To enforce the grounding the parent is likewise grounded by the obligation to ensure compliance.

Punishment does not teach accountability
The "punisher" (parent) is responsible to see that the child's behavior changes. If you use punishment, by your actions you have accepted responsibility for your child's behavior. Your actions say loudly and clearly, "You are not in control, I am." If you accept the responsibility for your child's behavior then he/she will have to learn to be accountable when he/she is outside of your influence, and the outside world is a tough teacher! A child who is spanked for being mean to a sibling simply learns that the biggest person gets to hit and accepts no accountability for deciding to act kindly because it is a good way to act... even adults don't act that way.

Most of all, punishment denies a child the right to experience the real consequence of their actions. The reward for good performance is... good performance. Seldom is it necessary for us to provide the reward, and the same is true for poor performance. The punishment for poor performance is... poor performance. As parents we need to point out the negative consequences inherent in their negative behavior, we do not need to create new ones. We can serve as a big help to our children if we help them foresee potential problems and the natural consequences of some of their possible decisions.

The consequence of being mean to a sibling is that the child has made someone else feel bad and being viewed as mean. Point that out clearly to the child while at the same time guiding them in appropriate action. When you resort to punishment a child will simply deduce that, by your action, you are meaner than they are. (If you act in anger they might be right!) Note: There are a couple of situations where it is unreasonable to let children run into the natural consequences of their own poor performance. If it is illegal, immoral, or life threatening then we must act as the adult in their world and step in to prevent major injury, incarceration, or violation of society's rules of decency.

If you use punishment as a tool it may work to stop a particular action. If you send a fighting kid to his room he may have stopped fighting for the immediate present. Sometimes that is necessary to do. The error comes when we think that the punishment has taught the child what to do in the next situation. It has taught the kid NOT to do something... but it has not taught them what to do! That is our job as parents... teach them what to do and how to decide to do it!

The Punishment for poor performance is... Poor Performance! The reward for good performance is... Good Performance! "It is not the duty of adults to create new punishments, but rather to point out the negative consequences inherent in the child's negative actions... and to suggest positive alternatives."

A closing note: If this is the first article by us that you have read, you might feel like we have advocated that you throw away one of your most often used tools for working with your kids. For tools and skills to use in place of punishment either get copies of previous articles or spend some time perusing our parenting curriculum and you will find many "replacement techniques".

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