As parents, it becomes easy to default to punishment. For many of us, it’s how we were raised. And when we see temporary compliance, we assume it works. Here’s what research says about punishment in the longterm as well as more effective alternatives rooted in positive discipline.
As a young boy in Catholic school, my dad remembers being pulled out of class. (He may have deserved that part of it). The priest asked him to stand one inch from a brick wall. After being chastised, the priest slammed my dad backwards finalizing his penance.
Thankfully, corporal punishment is no longer used in schools and has vastly departed from households. While this is a substantial step in the right direction, many of us were still raised using less physical forms of punishment.
Because it’s part of our personal history, it can feel almost instinctive to parent using punishment.
Plus, no one wants to raise children who don’t listen. When our children defy us, we want to extinguish their bad behaviour as effectively as possible. And when we punish children, we typically see the behaviour stop. When we achieve our desired outcome temporarily, all seems well.
When our children fail to listen, they can trigger our anger. If we yell, inflict strict punishment, such as sending them to their rooms for an indefinite period of time or even spanking them, children will cry. We perceive their tears as remorse. And as a result, we deduce that we’ve done a good job because the child now understands he was bad. Punishing starts making sense.
The effect on our children is much different than our perceptions, though.
My dad had been pushed into a brick wall for acting out in class.
Why Research Says Punishment is Ineffective
When we punish children, we typically see the behaviour stop. As a result, we conclude that it’s worked. It makes sense. We achieved our desired outcome temporarily so all seems well. Typically, we are also angry that our children have made a bad choice. When we yell, inflict strict punishment, such as sending them to their rooms for an indefinite period of time or even spank, our kids start crying. Their tears are an indication they feel remorse. We think we’ve done a good job because they now understand they were bad.
The actual impact on our children is much different than our perceptions, though. Extensive behavioural studies have shown that punishment can result in an increase in obedience, but does not actually accomplish internalized moral reasoning. What most of us want are children who do the right thing whether we are with them or not. Punishment only results in a fear of being punished. This “…is not an effective deterrent unless there is a real chance of being caught.” Additionally, when a child feels ignored, punishment can act as a reward for poor behaviour.
Related reading: Punishing Kids: Why Saying ‘I Turned Out Fine’ is Missing the Point
Strict Parenting Versus Empathetic Parenting
The main goal of parenting is to increase self-regulation. Mainly, we want to raise our children to act well in any situation regardless of the fear of consequence. Countless studies have examined the long-term impact of different parenting styles on children. They have found that children raised in strict, or authoritarian households are more likely to lack self-discipline when compared to children with empathetic or authoritative parents. The reason is that punitive discipline fails to adequately teach the child. The child learns there is a part of me that is undesirable or is bad. That’s it. Furthermore, children learn that power wins over reasoning. Because authoritarian parenting centres on obedience instead of discussion, children become less likely to understand emotion and reasoning. They also become more prone to anxiety, rebellion, and depression. For more information, click here.
Strict Punishment is Ineffective, What Should we to do Instead?
There are effective ways to discipline without using authoritarian forms of punishment. Here are some wonderful ways to teach your child when they’ve made a poor choice.
- Get down to their level, hold their hands, and wait for their undivided attention. Ask them why they misbehaved. Acknowledge their feelings. Talk about what is expected of them and how they can do better.
- Remove them from the situation but go with them. This is basically an adaptation on a timeout where you are there to help calm them down and then coach them through where they went wrong.
- Have the child sit to the side of a social interaction (if you can’t leave the room with them). Talk them through their emotions as they sit to the side.
- Wait it out. At a very young age, children develop a form of currency. There are things they absolutely love and feel like they cannot live without – watching TV or going to an indoor gym. Postponing the use of these can act as a wonderful incentive. An example that works in our household is not going to the park until all the toys are cleaned up. Read more here.
- Use specific praise to shape their behaviour. Positive reinforcement is the best tactic when trying to get the most out of a child. While saying “Good job,” is good, using these examples have so much more impact.
Related reading: When Positive Parenting Fails, This is What you can do
Download printable copy of the list above, please subscribe to my newsletter below.
No matter what form of discipline you choose or even if you end up defaulting to punishment, the key to effective parenting is connecting with your child. When disciplining, connection is paramount. They must feel understood in order to understand. Without this piece, the opportunity to learn from their mistakes is lost.
Sign up and get valuable parenting resources sent to your inbox
When you sign up for my newsletter, as a thank you, I will send you an ebooklet filled with tips to improve kids listening, stay calm in the heat of the moment and more!