Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

Photography:Rachel Burt Photography

By Tracy Cassels

There is a movement afoot to move away from punishment as lots of people are learning the benefits of gentle, respectful, and logical parenting practices. But for many, the issue of punishment is one they just don’t see. They can’t understand why punishment doesn’t work. This isn’t too surprising given that in the short term, it can seem to work very well, especially with younger children. So why would anyone speak out against a method that seemingly can make your life easier and do what you believe is best for your child? 

Punishment is Illogical 

We have to be clear here that punishment is not the same as natural or logical consequences. To understand why punishment is illogical, we need to first examine what natural and logical consequences are. A consequence is something that happens because of another act and these can be divided into three types of consequences: natural, logical, or illogical (aka punishment). 

Natural consequences happen no matter what anyone does, so you actually are not an active agent in this unless you stop natural consequences from happening (which is common too). An example of a natural consequence is a child refusing to wear a coat outside in winter and then getting cold. What’s important to know about natural consequences is that we are primed to learn from them as humans – in fact, they are the best way for us to learn lessons. So looking at that coat example, if you don’t fight the coat issue but bring one with you, once your child is cold, she should look to you for the coat unless you’ve already turned it into a power struggle and so she refuses on principle.

The other two types of consequences are artificial in nature in that they are imposed by others, but can follow as either logical or illogical. Logical consequences are those that make sense when considering the action in question. For example, if your child doesn’t eat any healthy food, it’s logical to say they can’t go and eat tons of dessert. You can explain this to them in terms of health and how food impacts their body. In addition to making sense and being something you can link when you explain, it also has to be temporally logical. That means, you can’t take away dessert for a week for one night of not eating dinner because it then loses the logic.

Logical consequences are those that make sense when considering the action in question.

Finally, we get to punishment, or illogical consequences. These are the many consequences we try to impose that have nothing to do with the problem at hand. We are using our power to try and take something that they want away from a child to get them to comply with something completely different. For example, you may see people take away toys or TV time for not eating dinner. You will often also see people threaten to take away future events for some current compliance (“If you don’t get ready right now, we won’t go to the fair this weekend”). These are very common and yet make absolutely no sense unless we simply view it as a means to exert our control over our children.

The research we have on moral development is quite clear, that children simply don’t learn anything of moral value when the consequences are not logical. That is, punishment does teach the lesson about what dicks we can be as parents to our kids, but it does nothing in terms of aiding their moral or social development. Nothing.

But What About the Momentary “Good”? 

Some parents may wonder if the greater good in the moment is still worth it if they are getting children to comply with something important. After all, eating good foods is important. Not getting sick is also important. However, this is where we have to be good about looking at the short-term gain versus long-term pain, because in almost no instance can we see that it’s worth it.

What happens when we use our power for punishment? Our children may comply in the moment, but we know they aren’t actually learning anything about the message we are sending. They are not learning, for example, that eating healthy foods is important. They are not learning that hitting people harms them. They are simply learning that being bigger means exerting power that isn’t fair. So already you’ve set yourself up for a longer socialisation battle because your kids aren’t actually getting the lessons you think you’re teaching.

They are simply learning that being bigger means exerting power that isn’t fair.

The second reason you end up with longer-term pain is because you’re actually turning these important issues into a power struggle. You’re making them flashpoints for your kids and they will not only not learn, but can get to the stage of flat-out defiance (even against their better judgment of what’s good for them) in order to spite you. And as they get bigger, your ability to control them becomes less and less. They are out of the house more, they are physically stronger, and that power you were wielding for so long becomes moot.

So you may have gotten your 2-year-old to eat lunch regularly, but if you keep up with these methods, you can very well end up with an angry, resentful 6-year-old who not only refuses to eat lunch but no longer listens to you for anything. When we use punishment regularly, our kids don’t see us as someone to learn from, but someone to get away from and trust me when I say you don’t want this as your kids gets older.

The Dangers of Punishment 

You also have to face the fact that punishment becomes ineffective over time. Children adapt to punishment – still viewing it as unfair, mind you – and just accept it without giving in to what you are trying to accomplish. Suddenly, one day, you have a child that says, “Fine” when you threaten to take away TV, because they’ve gotten used to it so much that it’s no longer so negative. Then you have to up the ante.

This can get quite dangerous. 

In fact, one of the biggest concerns with the use of any harsh parenting methods, like spanking, is not the immediate harm from using it once, but the massive increased risk of more spanking and even harsher corporal punishment down the line. Even when it’s not corporal punishment, but removal of privileges and so on, we also see a danger in the future: our relationship with our kids. This goes back to the issue of punishment being illogical and how punishment is perceived. Because of the inherent lack of logic to it, then our kids only see the action as cruel and this hurts our relationship with them. You don’t get a positive, secure attachment with someone you find to be hurtful and this is likely why research suggests that when we include expected punishment, children are more apt to lie about things than when punishment is not on the table.

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