The Truth About Punishments

Most of us have been punished for something when we were children. In western societies, punishment for children is not only acceptable, but expected; the very concept of a childhood without punishments can evoke ideas of children being left to get away with things, or being “too soft” as a parent. When I talk about punishment I am not referring at any point to ‘physical punishment’ but more the removal of things (e.g. toys, pleasurable activities) and time-out. is often accepted and promoted, by parenting experts, and educators.

But punishments work!

Punishments may sometimes succeed in deterring undesirable behaviour, but when you parent from a framework primarily built on rewards and punishments there may come a day when you have removed TV time, the Ipad, the phone, and your child looks at you and says, ‘I don’t care.’ Parents who use punishments regularly find themselves endlessly upping the ante and feel stuck at how to ‘enforce the rules’ and be heard.

Punishments are intended to ‘hurt’ and reprimand the child to teach them their behaviour was bad. They can also cause children to internalise shame and anger, create distance, isolation and mistrust. Severe or physical punishments create fear, rage, helplessness and hopelessness.

Punishments are inadequate teachers because they don’t teach or model positive behaviour.

The difficulty at giving up using punishments is that they appear to work in the moment. When our child does something wrong and we become angry, using a punishment or consequence stops the behaviour there and then. It also gives us a release for the frustration or anger our child’s behaviour has made us feel and it shifts the balance from feeling helpless at witnessing our child’s misbehaviour to feeling powerful and ‘in charge’ of the situation again.

Another challenge is that compliance often increases immediately after a punishment. However, compliance comes at an important cost. Punishments put fear in children and compliance out of fear is not coming from a place of respect and understanding but from a place of not wanting to be punished again. Punishments shift a child’s focus from understanding the ‘wrong behaviour’ to wanting to avoid future punishments.

There is a growing evidence-base that shows children who are punished are obedient (i.e. they do as they are told out of fear) but they are less likely to make positive moral choices (i.e. behave well because they want to be a good person). This is because punishments make children focus on the consequence they are suffering rather than the behaviour they have carried out.

Research shows that over time children get more skilled at not getting caught and become better liars rather than learning to make choices based on morals, respect, or love. Punishments create dishonesty because when we take away something our child loves or enjoys the message they receive is that they need to avoid being caught.

Timeouts and punishments erode your relationship with your child. The greater your child is disconnected from you, the less they care about how their behaviour will affect you. Studies show that children who are punished are more likely to make poor choices later on in life when not in the presence of their parents because their behavioural choices have been based on the avoidance of punishment rather than sound moral decision making. Children who receive punishments expect parents to ’make them behave’ rather than learning that behaviours are their own choice (and therefore developing morality).

Moreover, punishment can isolate children and make them feel bad about themselves, which can itself become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children may begin to behave in ways that give them negative attention simply because they believe that is the best or the only way they can get it. Children who are punished regularly tend to escalate their behaviours.

WHY do children misbehave?

Children show challenging behaviours for many reasons including to get attention, to test limits and boundaries, to assert their autonomy, and because they are unable of regulating their emotions and behaviour yet.

The part of the brain responsible for emotion regulation takes a very long time to develop, the left hand side of the brain that is responsible for logical thinking doesn’t begin integrating with the emotional right hand side of the brain until approximately 7 years of age. And the frontal lobes, responsible for impulse control, only start to fully begin development during puberty.

Punishments and time-out tells a child that their presence is only desired when they are “being good.” It leaves them isolated and alone to deal with the most overwhelming of feelings, despite being too young to know how to regulate those emotions. Time-out often leaves parents and children engaging in a power struggle that all too often further escalates the situation and can leave a child feeling shamed or bad. Punishment doesn’t build the skills children need to do better the next time.

When navigating an area of parenting as tricky as discipline, it can help to routinely check in with ourselves with an important question: What are our ultimate parenting goals?

If our primary goal is an enduring bond with our children, then starting from a place of manipulation is not a good strategy. If you are thinking “how do I make my child understand” or “how do I get him to do x,y,z…” then what you are inadvertently creating is an “us against them” relationship with your children rather than the positive partnership children need to be guided effectively.

Our role as parents is to support children to develop and learn, but they need our help because their brains are not fully formed and cannot integrate emotion, logic and impulse until puberty has passed. How we respond to our child’s behaviour has been shown to have huge consequences in terms of neurological connections. What we do changes our children’s brains. That is a big responsibility for us to take.

So how do we discipline our child without punishment?

Discipline at its core is about teaching. It is about skill-building rather than ‘reward and punishment’. Many parents feel scared that not using punishments will mean their child ‘will get away’ with bad behaviour.

However, good discipline is not an easy feat and it takes time, patience and consistency. It involves setting strict limits and boundaries. There is nothing ‘soft’ about discipline but unlike using punishments, there is no shame, pain or harm intended with it.

Good firm discipline in action should look like teaching. How you teach discipline will depend on the age of your child and the situation you are in.

As parents we need encouragement to take care of ourselves, honestly, fairly, and confidently so that we don’t take it out on our children. We need permission to take charge of a situation, stop behaviour we don’t want from happening and set consequences when things go wrong. To do this we also need to accept and respect that our children will push back against our limits and may feel upset and angry at the boundaries we set. They are allowed to have strong feelings about this and we are allowed to hold our ground, gently acknowledging it is hard for them as it is to us.

The essential difference is how you set the consequences to behaviour and how you sincerely and honestly share with your children the intent the consequences has. We cannot offer gentle parenting to our children without taking care of our own personal boundaries. And modelling consequences that show our limits and boundaries is healthy and necessary.

I will be sharing some tools and ideas using real examples of consequences, limits, and techniques in my next blog post.

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