To punish or not to punish, that is the question

John Stein

It is really difficult to talk about punishment these days, but it is important to do so. One problem in discussing punishment arises from the strong feelings and values associated with punishment that are based on thousands of years of traditions. Another problem arises from confusing two distinct concepts of punishment: the traditional concept and the more recent concept in behavioral psychology.

There are some similarities between these two concepts, but the differences have significant implications for raising, teaching, and treating children.

Traditionally, punishment is something that someone in authority imposes on someone else as a penalty for a misdeed. It is something that is done to people to make them feel punished enough to pay for their misdeed. We all know that traditional punishments are not always effective in changing behavior.

Meanwhile, psychologists found a neat way to make sure that punishment is always effective in changing behavior “by definition. In psychology, any stimulus that reduces the strength of a behavior in some measurable way is a punishment for that behavior. Punishment is something that happens to behavior rather than something that is done to a person.

The similarities between these two concepts make it difficult to understand the differences. Both involve unpleasant consequences. And traditional punishments sometimes meet the criteria for punishment in psychology by changing behavior. It is easy to believe that we are applying behavioral principles when we impose traditional punishments on children, that we are “doing behavior modification.” When we succeed in making children feel punished, we sometimes mistakenly believe that we are punishing their behavior. Even when our punishments are not producing results, we persist, secure in the knowledge that behavior will eventually change. I have seen trained and well meaning psychologists fall into this trap and admit to having done so myself. But just because children feel punished does not mean that we have succeeded in punishing their behavior.

Traditional punishments make children feel punished even when having little or no effect on their behavior. In psychology, punishment is always effective in changing behavior, even when children don't feel punished. Not only is it possible for children's behavior to be punished without punishing children, it is possible for their behavior to be punished while at the same time being nice to them. How can this be?

When we free ourselves from the mistaken belief that children must be punished for their misbehavior (a belief that has strong traditions) we can usually find creative ways to insure that misbehavior is punished effectively without having to punish children. First, behavior is often punished by its natural consequences; there is no need for adults to impose additional punishment. A second strategy is to impose logical (or rational) consequences that are designed logically to punish a specific behaviors rather than children. A third strategy is to impose token consequences that are too mild to feel like punishment. There are other strategies.

Natural Consequences
If experience is the best teacher, it's because natural consequences are the best punishments. Natural consequences are consequences that occur naturally as the result of behavior. They are not imposed by anyone. There is no one to blame but oneself. No question of justice or fairness. They just are.

I remember when I was about three years old deciding to ride my tricycle down a flight of steps. It didn't go well. I hurt all over. My mother did not punish me or even scold me. She was nice to me. She comforted me. Nevertheless, I never rode my tricycle down steps again. I remember several other things that I did only once despite the fact that no one punished me.

When natural consequences are obvious, children often learn quickly from them, provided that adults do not interfere by distracting children with unnecessary and irrelevant punishments. When natural consequences are not so obvious, children can still learn from them when adults help them understand those consequences (and refrain from imposing unnecessary punishments).

Some examples of natural consequences (that may not be obvious to children “including adolescents “but that can be effective once adults help children understand them) include loss of friends, loss of trust, loss of respect, or having other people avoid you. There are many others. Natural consequences are the most effective means of teaching children about feelings and values that are necessary for happiness and success in their society and culture.

Logical Consequences
Logical consequences are consequences that are designed logically to target specific behaviors rather than targeting children with punishments. There are at least two strategies:

1. Designing consequences to prevent specific misbehaviors.

2. Designing consequences to have children correct the problems they have caused.

Logical consequences are indicated whenever we cannot rely on natural consequences to teach children. Some natural consequences may be too dangerous; responsible adults have to protect children (e.g., playing in the street). Other natural consequences may be irrelevant to children or beyond their understanding (e.g., coming home late or not doing homework).

Consider the behavior of the child who goes out to play after school and repeatedly comes home late for dinner. The natural consequences are that parents may be worried, everyone eats late or the child has to eat a cold meal alone after everyone else has finished, and mom is late cleaning up dinner. None of these are likely to be very important to children of any age.

Preventing the misbehavior. The misbehavior can be prevented by not allowing the child to go out to play after school. He can't be late if he's at home when dinner is served. The consequence is not designed to impose punishment on the child but to be sure he's home when dinner is served. A minor difference to be sure. But children can appreciate it, especially when they are allowed to use the phone, have friends come to the house, play outside in the yard, watch TV, and play video games. Mom might even take time to play a game with him. The message is, “You don't seem to be able to be responsible for coming home on time, so for the time being, you must remain at home. You're not punished. You just can't leave the house or the yard before dinner.” Of course, if he's not allowed to go out for weeks, it begins to feel like punishment. Using this strategy for a few days then letting him try again and repeating it whenever he is late will eventually be effective. He has to learn a new skill “being aware of the time.

Correcting problems caused by the misbehavior. One of the problems caused by the misbehavior is that mom doesn't finish cleaning up dinner in time for her TV show. “You know, when you are late for dinner, I don't get out of the kitchen until after 7:00 o'clock. You can solve that problem by taking responsibility for cleaning up dinner whenever you are late.” A very unpleasant consequence that has nothing to do with punishment. Mom is just asking her child to be responsible for his behavior.

Traditional punishments involve taking away something the child likes or imposing something the child doesn't like that have nothing to do with the behavior, but rather with punishing children. Logical consequences may also involve taking away something children like, but only something logically related to the misbehavior, something children are not yet able to handle responsibly. Or they may involve imposing something children dislike, but only something logically related to the misbehavior, usually by having children take responsibility for correcting the problems they have caused. Logical consequences are an effective means of teaching children responsibility.

Token Punishments
Sometimes, when natural consequences appear to be ineffective, it can be very difficult to come up with appropriate, effective logical consequences. In such cases, I have found token punishments to be helpful. Traditional punishments are usually calculated to be proportional to misbehavior in some way. The more serious the misbehavior, the more severe the penalty. The goal is to make children feel punished sufficiently to pay for, or more than pay for, their misbehavior. With token punishments, the punishment is too mild to allow children to feel that they have paid for their misbehavior. The goal is to avoid making children feel that they have been punished sufficiently.

Punishment relieves guilt and remorse. Children no longer have to feel remorse or guilt when they feel they have paid for their misbehavior by serving the punishment, or “paid their debt to society.” When children feel they have more than paid for their misbehavior, they tend to become resentful, angry, and vindictive.

I used to think restrictions of one to two weeks were appropriate for residents who hit people, stole something, used illegal substances, or committed other acts that were clearly illegal. Then I started a new job. In my first week, while discussing strategies with my new boss, he told me, “Kids cannot handle restrictions of more than a day or two.” I objected that that was inadequate for serious misbehavior. He replied calmly but decisively, “Nevertheless, that's all they can handle.” Within a few months, I realized that we were having far less aggression than I had had in previous programs. I decided that we must have “easier” kids and looked for the evidence. We did not. Several big, strong adolescents had substantial histories of aggression.

Punishment affects how children view themselves. When children see themselves as “deserving punishment,” then behaviors that “merit” punishment do not feel out of place. Children who are serving long restrictions have little to feel good about. Adults have to remind them periodically that they are “on restriction,” in effect reimposing the restrictions. Children on longer restrictions tend to get into more trouble and earn additional restrictions. Some children seem never to get off of restriction. With shorter restrictions, children can get back to feeling good and “being good” much sooner.

Perhaps the only good thing about traditional punishment is the effect it may have on others. Seeing someone else punished for something you refrained from doing reinforces not only your behavior but also your values related to appropriate behavior. Token punishments can serve this purpose for group members with less harm on the person who is punished.

Other Strategies
Sometimes, I am just too busy to talk with children about an incident. Occasionally, I am too angry over an incident and need to calm down. Other times, I just need time to think about what an appropriate response would be. In such situations, I simply ask children to wait in their room so that I know where to find them when I am ready to talk. Other times, I ask children to save me some time by writing down what happened. Both consequences have little to do with punishing children. Nevertheless, they provide an immediate consequence for misbehavior. Since I have not yet imposed any punishment, they have to think about what they have done rather than the punishment they must serve. They often come up with a plan to take responsibility for what they have done. When we do talk, I often find that the natural consequences of their behavior and what they propose to do about it (along with the brief but uncomfortable restriction during which they have to think) is enough to punish their behavior. I don't have to impose any other consequences.

Side Effects of Traditional Punishments
Punishment is strong medicine. As with any strong medicine, potentially harmful side effects may occur. Some children are more susceptible than others to side effects.

Some side effects to watch for:

  1. Lying, sneaking, deceit, blaming others. Children eventually learn to avoid getting caught.

  2. Lack of responsibility. Adults sometimes teach children to be responsible for their behavior by serving the punishment. Being responsible for your behavior means making things right, not serving a punishment.

  3. Don't trust adults. When children are not sure they did the right thing, they will normally come to adults for advice, unless they fear they will be punished.

  4. See authority figures as adversaries. Punishment tends to make adversaries of adults and children. Children do not readily learn healthy values from adversaries.

  5. Lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt. Punishment does not teach empathy, which is necessary for remorse and guilt. Moreover, it tends to relieve guilt.

  6. Resentment and anger. People often feel hurt and misunderstood when they have been punished and become resentful and angry.
    Retaliation and aggression. Our children learn by watching us. When we punish, they sometimes learn to punish others when they feel hurt in some way.

  7. Rebellion. Traditional punishments involve power and control. People tend to rebel against power and attempts to control them, especially oppositional children.

  8. Emotional problems. When children get angry and misbehave, they sometimes believe that they are being punished for being angry rather than for misbehaving. When they believe that being angry is wrong, they feel that they deserve to be punished. Then their misbehavior does not feel wrong.

  9. Poor self-image. Children tend to see themselves through the eyes of others. Knowing that adults think they deserve to be punished can be very damaging.

  10. Loss of confidence and motivation. Children who are punished sometimes feel they can't do anything right and don't try.

  11. Impulsive behavior.

When adults teach children to behave to avoid punishment, children sometimes believe that the only reason to behave is to avoid punishment. They lose sight of other reasons to behave well, such as the approval of their parents, having friends who like and trust them, being safe and healthy, or getting an education. In situations where they cannot get caught or punished, they have only their impulses to guide them.

These are the very behaviors presented by so many of our children. Why would we resort to a strategy that may make their behavior worse? It is not necessary to punish every misbehavior, and it is rarely necessary to punish children. It is often necessary to teach children. These strategies are about teaching children about feelings, values, and responsibility.

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