Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

This lack of positive and open relationship means we cease to be the people our kids come to in times of need when they are older, and this can be terrifying for parents today. We take it for granted that teens in our culture are distant and moody and don’t share with us, but this is actually a cultural norm, not a biological one. Yes, there’s a greater move towards independence in the teen years (naturally so), but independence is not the same as shutting others out or turning solely to one’s peers, which is the common attitude in Western culture. However, parenting through punishment leads to this outcome more often than not, but it doesn’t have to be this way if we start out disciplining from a place of compassion and respect.

Putting It into Practice 

This is often the hardest part for people because they fear being permissive and they face a society that is so enmeshed in punishment that it seems like you are wrong for not following along. The thing is that you don’t need to punish to parent effectively and in fact, you will parent better if you remove it from your toolkit altogether.

First things first, remember that outside of immediate safety, nothing is catastrophic. Your child doesn’t want to eat lunch? Yep, it can seem awful in the moment, but that moment will pass and life will continue. We have a tendency to catastrophise things that we fear and so we think horrible things will happen if we cave on any little thing. Now, I’m not going to suggest there won’t be any consequences, but they are rarely as dire as we believe. A hungry child can tantrum and be downright grouchy, but is avoiding that worth the risk of punishment?

The thing is that you don’t need to punish to parent effectively and in fact, you will parent better if you remove it from your toolkit altogether.

Second, we all cope better when we are prepared. If you find yourself using punishments, take a week and just jot down the times when you are most prone to using them. Is it food-related? Is it when you’re in a rush? What is happening that triggers you? Once you can get that information, get prepared to avoid the problems if you can and set up logical consequences for those moments you can’t. If your child doesn’t ever want to eat at the table, then you have to decide – is his eating more important than where he eats? If so, then set up a picnic either outside or inside, but change it up to make it fun for him. If you’re short when you’re in a rush, examine why you aren’t getting prepared and ready to go earlier. Perhaps you need an extra 15 minutes to leave the house – account for it and avoid the stressed rush.

Sometimes, you’ll need logical consequences because the natural ones aren’t so desirable (but natural should always be preferred). I know brushing teeth can be a massive battle at bedtime for people and so you can either set up fights every night time or just set your logical consequences (sadly, the natural consequence of cavities is one most people would like to avoid from a health and financial perspective). No brushing teeth? No sugar and always try brushing in the morning so you always get one brush in per day and the logic of no sugar until they are brushed. Use it as a way to explain how foods affect bacteria in the mouth and what that means for your child’s health.

Third, don’t get mad. Easier said than done, but definitely easier when you are implementing logical consequences. The thing about punishment is that we can’t justify it and so we ourselves get flustered and upset, which just makes the whole thing worse. We dig ourselves a hole and have no way to explain our reasoning because it can’t be reasoned so we get angry as our way of reinforcing it. However, when we use logic, we can explain things in a way that resonates with our kids and we can be compassionate to their upset in the moment of any consequence while still holding the ground because it makes sense. A child who can’t have sugar will be sad, and it’s okay that she’s sad and your relationship will be stronger because you support her here. The use of logic almost takes you out of the equation here – you aren’t doing this to her, it just follows that this is what happens. This is likely why children don’t feel resentful when consequences are logical.

The use of logic almost takes you out of the equation here – you aren’t doing this to her, it just follows that this is what happens.

Finally, be ready to step back and apologise if you find yourself going down the punishment road. Sometimes we end up there out of habit and it’s not only okay but good to catch ourselves, take back the punishment, and talk to our kids about it. This isn’t losing control, but gaining control because control isn’t about abusing your power, it’s about showing children how to be responsible with it. That includes acknowledging when we’ve been wrong. So when you make a mistake (because we all do), take a moment, think of a logical consequence, then go back and say that your first idea was kind of silly because it doesn’t make sense and present the logical consequence which you can justify and reason instead.

Remember: punishment is not ever necessary when raising emotionally healthy children and actually risks more harm than good. You will also find that you are probably happier and calmer when you have natural and logical consequences ready to go because it removes the stress of reacting without a plan.

Relevant References: 

Baker-Henningham H, Francis T. Parents’ use of harsh punishment and young children’s behaviour and achievement: a longitudinal study of Jamaican children with conduct problems. Global Mental Health 2018; 5: e32. 
Eisenberg N. Emotion, regulation, and moral development. Annual Reviews in Psychology 2000; 51: 665-697. 
Gershoff ET. Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: a meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin 2002; 128: 539-579. 
Gershoff ET. Should parents’ physical punishment of children be considered a source of toxic stress that affects brain development? Family Relations 2016; 65: 151-162. 
Hoffman ML, Saltzstein HD. Parent discipline and the child’s moral development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1967; 5: 45-57 (*old but seminal paper) 
Hoffman ML. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 
Talwar V, Arruda C, Yachison S. The effects of punishment and appeals for honesty on children’s truth-telling behavior. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 2015; 130: 209-217. 
Walker LJ, Hennig KH, Krettenauer T. Parent and peer contexts for children’s moral reasoning development. Child Development 200; 71: 1033-1048. 

Originally published here.

Tracy Cassels, PhD is the Director of Evolutionary Parenting, a science-based, attachment-oriented resource for families on a variety of parenting issues. In addition to her online resources, she offers one-on-one support to families around the world and is regularly asked to speak on a variety of issues from sleep to tantrums at conferences and in the media. She lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada with her husband and two children.

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