The CYC-Net Press CYC-Online




Parenting without punishment: Making problem behaviour work for you

John W. Maag

The problem with punishment is that it simply doesn’t work. Responding only to a child’s negative behavior is a recipe for disaster. This article draws from the author’s recent book on the topic of parenting without punishment and from his long experience training professionals in the education and treatment of children with serious behavior problems. 

Parenting has always been accompanied by difficult challenges—ones that appear even greater in today’s turbulent society. Criminal activity, substance abuse, and sexual promiscuity are typical behavior patterns for about 50% of adolescents. These problems and others, such as the proliferation of gangs, depression and suicide, academic failure, date rape, and sexual molestation of children by other children, paint a dismal picture of the state of youth in the United States today.

Besides these very serious problems, there seems to be a pervasive societal attitude that youngsters today display more discipline problems, are more disrespectful and apathetic, and are less motivated than those raised in past generations. The problems just described—and countless others too numerous to mention—are used as examples of the much-ballyhooed disintegration and corruption of society’s moral fabric. We are beckoned to go back to happier, simpler times, such as those believed to exist during the 1950s (although the 1950s was not the idyllic decade that it is often portrayed to be).

There is no question that the U.S. family has changed dramatically over the past 40 years and that single-parent families, divorce, and cohabitation have been blamed for the breakdown of the family structure. Dual-career families are perceived as diminishing the impact of parents on children’s behavior while increasing the potentially negative influence of peers with whom children interact in day-care facilities across the country. Television, which also has changed dramatically over the same time, has been criticized for glamorizing violence. For example, Dr. Carole Lieberman, a noted expert on violence in the media, described how it has become so pervasive that our society has become desensitized—and the violence has become culturally acceptable.

The most frequently suggested response to the very complicated and multifaceted problems facing today’s youth and their families often is a rhetorical, simplistic "get tough" philosophy. It is epitomized by the proliferation of juvenile incarceration, school expulsions, adult sentencing of minors, and removal of youth from the home. These and other similar approaches have one thing in common: a focus on more discipline! It is fashionable to quote the biblical verse, "spare the rod and spoil the child." Given this austere cultural ethos, I often encounter skepticism and even disgust when advocating parenting without punishment. Is this goal realistic, let alone attainable? After all, what parents haven’t punished children upon occasion? I know I’m guilty of using punishment and, consequently, perhaps of being a hypocrite as well. I can rationalize away some of the imaginable hypocrisy by blaming my publisher, who concocted the title for my book of Parenting Without Punishment. My working title was Proactive Parenting, which I hoped would illustrate the importance of anticipating situations that may trigger inappropriate behavior so that they can be modified to promote more desirable behavior.

My publisher didn’t like the working title, declaring that it would be too esoteric and, consequently, not as marketable as the nicely alliterated one that the publisher wanted. I frantically started thinking of ways the title could be defended. Slowly, my initial musings became more lucid and focused on some commonly held misconceptions regarding several terms important to parenting: discipline, punishment, reinforcement, and rewards.

Many people erroneously assume that the terms discipline and punishment are synonymous. For example, a quick glance at the disciplinary practices appearing in the policies- and-procedures handbook of any public school in this country would reveal an exclusive focus on punishment: in-school and out-of-school suspension, expulsion, detention, restitution, and even corporal punishment in some states. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, however, discipline refers to "training that is expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement." A key word in this definition is improvement, which means "to increase, develop, or enhance." Conversely, punishment, by definition, does one thing—decrease behavior. It is tragically ironic when adults evoke punishment with the phrase, "I’m going to teach you a lesson." Teaching involves giving children skills and knowledge, not suppressing or eliminating behavior. Therefore, discipline has more in common with reinforcement, which increases behavior, than with punishment.

In order to better understand my last assertion, we must examine more thoroughly the concepts of reinforcement and punishment. The definitions for both these terms are deceptively simple. Reinforcement increases the probability that the behavior it follows will reoccur in the future.

Punishment decreases the probability that the behavior it follows will reoccur in the future. The key consideration in these two definitions is that reinforcement and punishment are effects—one increases a behavior, while the other decreases it. The following two examples should help clarify this distinction.

Imagine a child yelling and running around a room excessively.

As a result, a parent or teacher spends a few minutes talking "therapeutically" with the child—conveying warmth and caring, empathic understanding, and unconditional and positive self-regard. As a result of this communication, the child stops yelling and running. By definition, the adult’s attention was a punisher because it had the effect of decreasing the unwanted behaviors. The opposite effect also can occur. For example, as a consequence for a child’s placing his or her hand close to a hot burner, a parent parent may say a stern "No" and slap the back of the child’s hand. This action may create pain and even temporary inflammation of the skin. If the child repeatedly places his hand by the burner, however, the slap was not punishment but rather reinforcement, because the behavior increased.

We sometimes look upon children who seem to continue be-having poorly when confronted with "punishment" as disordered or even masochistic. What we fail to understand is that the attention the child receives from the parent may be more reinforcing than the pain of the slap is punishing.

This distinction is rarely understood by adults, who often administer punishment ineffectively. The following is a telling example. A teacher was disturbed that a child frequently did not bring his reading book to class. As a result, the child was required to write 100 times, "I will remember my book." Most adults would view this consequence as punishment. But what behavior is the teacher trying to decrease—remembering the book? This unfortunate case illustrates how punishment is often misunderstood and can be misapplied, with counterproductive results.

Reinforcement is similarly misunderstood, and its use—or misuse—continues to generate much controversy. Many adults seem unable to get past the stereotypic notion that reinforcement is a manipulative tool created to control people into engaging in behaviors chosen by others. Consequently, it continues to be viewed by some as coercive and undermining of a child’s ability to become self-directed and intrinsically motivated.

Alfie Kohn is one of the most vocal proponents of the view that reinforcement quells internal motivation. He has also claimed that reinforcement simply does not work—clearly an oxymoronic statement because, by definition, if something did not increase behavior then it was not a reinforcer.

Nevertheless, Kohn’s views appear throughout the popular media as well as in professional journals and books.
There are two problems with Kohn’s assertions. First, in his book Punished by Rewards, he literally ignored more than 100 studies with results contrary to his claims that

(a) reinforcement produced only temporary improvements in behavior and
(b) its removal inevitably led to a return to the behavior problem, often at a worse level than originally existed.

Second, and most telling, was his propensity to erroneously equate the terms reward and reinforcement. A reward is a thing—not an effect—given to acknowledge an accomplishment. Synonyms for it would include merit or prize. A reward may or may not be a reinforcer. For example, an athlete wins a gold medal in the Olympics for the discus throw. If he subsequently retired from competition, the medal as reward functioned as punishment rather than reinforcement because, by definition, his discus-throwing behavior decreased. On the other hand, if the athlete placed a disappointing 10th and then practiced harder to compete in the next Olympiad, his poor showing was a reinforcer because, by definition, it increased discus-throwing behavior.

The belief Kohn and others hold that providing external reinforcement will stifle children’s internal motivation contains a certain irony: They often have few worries about the possibility that administration of external punishment will cause the same problem. In addition, critics of reinforcement often fail to understand that it is a naturally occurring phenomenon—all behaviors are followed by certain consequences.

If a behavior increases, then the consequence is reinforcement. The statement some people make that they don’t believe in reinforcement is analogous to saying they don’t believe in gravity. Just because they may not like something doesn’t eliminate its existence. With great effort, opponents can usually be convinced that reinforcement is a naturally occurring phenomenon; nevertheless, they continue to argue with its propriety (i.e., their objection is to its planned use to elicit a behavior in another person). This view is puzzling, especially for parents and teachers. For example, does it not make more sense for teachers to plan the occurrence of reinforcement for specific behaviors of students rather than letting it occur randomly, with the potential for increasing inappropriate behaviors? The discussion thus far now leads us to the crux of the matter: making problem behavior work for you. Adults typically view children’s problem behavior as something to decrease or eliminate and, as discussed previously, punishment is the technique used to accomplish this goal.

However, many problem behaviors represent naturally occurring reinforcers that can be used to increase desirable behaviors. For example, one of students’ most intractable and frustrating behaviors for junior high school teachers is the writing of notes by students to peers during class. In an effort to suppress this behavior, some teachers will resort to reading confiscated notes aloud to the class. One teacher told me she would read notes over the school-wide public address system. This callous disregard for students’ dignity is only surpassed by its ineffectiveness. A better way to suppress this problem would be for the teacher to use this behavior as a naturally occurring reinforcer. For example, he or she might say to the class, "Everyone who keeps their eyes on me, hands and feet to self, and talks only when called on will get 2 minutes to write a note. Those students who promptly put the note away at the end of the 2 minutes will be allowed to leave class 1 minute early to deliver the note." The previous example is based on the idea that when children have free access to do whatever they want, there is a greater likelihood that certain behaviors (writing notes) will occur, rather than other behaviors (paying attention). I use the acronym GLOB to designate greater likelihood of behavior and SLOB for smaller likelihood of behavior.

Making problem behavior work for you involves giving a child access to a GLOB after they perform a SLOB. This process is technically known as the Premack Principle—so named after the person who described it. Most of us know this technique as "Mom’s Rule." How many of us remember from our childhood being told that if we wanted dessert, we’d better finish our vegetables, or if we wanted to go out and play, we must first clean our room. The key consideration is that instead of trying to eliminate undesirable GLOBs, we can make them available after children perform the desirable SLOBs. Giving children access to GLOBs after they perform SLOBs is an extremely effective way of promoting appropriate behavior by using problem behavior. The notable exception for using GLOBs is when they represent behaviors that are dangerous to self or others, such as self-mutilation or aggression. There is another way of making such problem behaviors work for you, and it is know as behavioral intent.

All behavior is purposeful and serves some function. In other words, we all behave in a particular way to achieve a desired result or outcome, although we may not always be consciously aware of that purpose at any given moment.

The purpose a behavior serves will affect the specific way it is performed to achieve a desired outcome. The purpose for a behavior may be appropriate although the behavior itself is inappropriate. In his book The Divided Self, R. D. Laing insightfully stated that even the language of schizophrenics, with its limited or nonexistent logical base, has meaning for the person using it. The following example is extreme but, nevertheless quite telling. Serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer killed young men, chopped up their body parts, and saved them in containers. One of the reasons he engaged in the third behavior was to compensate for never having long-lasting relationships with others. It is perfectly normal for all people to desire longevity in friendships, but in Dahmer’s case, the behaviors he engaged in to accomplish that goal were highly inappropriate.

Any discussion of the purposefulness of behavior has farreaching implications. It would be wanton, irresponsible, and—most importantly—ineffective to try and decrease a child’s behavior without taking into account its purpose and outcome. Instead, an adult should assume that the appearance a behavior takes, no matter how inappropriate, is the most fitting response a child currently possesses; therefore, that behavior may serve a very adaptive function for him or her. Instead of punishing the undesirable behavior, a more beneficial response would be teaching and reinforcing the child for performing a replacement behavior—an appropriate behavior that accomplishes the same outcome.

For example, the adult may hypothesize that a child hits other children in order to gain acceptance by a peer group that values toughness. An appropriate replacement behavior the adult might teach the child would be initiating a conversation with peer group members on a topic of mutual interest, such as horror movies. Talking about horror movies is a more appropriate behavior than hitting others, but it still accomplishes the desired outcome of peer affiliation.

Reinforcement and punishment are naturally occurring phenomena; thus, in one sense, it is misleading to say we can parent children without punishment because certain consequences will have the effect of decreasing behavior, regardless of whether those consequences carry negative or positive social connotations. However, inappropriate behaviors can be decreased or eliminated by using them to reinforce the occurrence of more desirable behaviors. In addition, inappropriate behaviors can be decreased by determining the purpose they serve and teaching and reinforcing a child for displaying an appropriate behavior that accomplishes the same goal. The following anecdote captures many of my sentiments regarding the deleterious effects of punishment.

A mother had two school-age sons whose language was liberally punctuated with profanity. The boys’ swearing became such a problem that the mother was embarrassed to take them out in public. She had received several complaints from the boys’ teachers, and her relatives were questioning her ability to be an effective parent. She decided to take the boys to a counselor to see if their swearing could be eliminated. The counselor’s advice was to punish the boys immediately and intensely whenever they swore, a recommendation with which the mother agreed. One night, while they were eating dinner, one of the boys said, "Pass the damn peas." The mother immediately spanked the boy so hard that he fell out of his chair. The mother sternly turned to the other boy and asked, "What do you want to eat?" He responded, "I sure as hell don’t want those damn peas."


Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Laing, R. D. (1969). The divided self. New York: Pantheon.

Premack, D. (1959). Toward empirical behavior laws: I. Positive reinforcements. Psychological Review, 66, 219–233.
Soukhanov, A. H. (Ed.). (1992). The American Heritage dictionary of the English language (3rd ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin.

This feature is one of the “free pages” of the journal Reclaiming Children and Youth.