The Truth About Punishment

The Truth About Punishment

When it comes to parenting, there isn’t exactly a ‘one size fits all’ approach for how to go about raising a child. As a parent, limits that you probably never thought you would reach have been. By limits, I am referring to the cannon blasting emotions that can unravel and burst at the seams when your child is not listening, quarrelling with you, making the same mistakes over and over again, having meltdowns, etc. When a child persistently misbehaves, it can be undeniably daunting and overwhelming to try to figure out what to do.

For many parents, lectures, warnings, threats, sarcasm, and name-calling are woven into the language they heard growing up. To compound such a familiar and often unquestioned form of discipline, we live in an era in which there is an inordinate amount of information on any one topic. Unfortunately, such information overload carries with it countless contradictions that can leave any well-intentioned parent desperate for an answer and by turn, more likely to resort to what feels most familiar to try to resolve their child’s misbehaviour.

To Punish or Not to Punish?

Lets set something straight. Punishment involves deliberately depriving a child for a set period of time or inflicting pain upon him/her in order to teach a lesson. Physical punishment is the most extreme type, as it encompasses the most disadvantages. While some claim that spanking and teaching their child a lesson through the use of physical force works, it must be remembered that at best, there are only minimal short-term gains from this, and in nearly every case, enormous long-term ramifications. Many children who are punished in such a manner often grow up questioning their self-worth, have difficulty trusting others, resort to violence to solve problems, and generally lack essential conflict resolution skills.

Things get murkier when it comes to withholding rewards and penalizing (e.g. time outs, loss of privileges, etc.). As a parent who believes that their child’s misbehaviour is learned or executed in order to ‘get their way’, then it follows that you also hold the belief that your child’s misbehaviour is planned, intentional, purposeful, and under their conscious control. Ultimately, such a belief gives rise to the notion that misbehaviour can be unlearned. Often, this re-teaching process includes: providing your child with plenty of positive attention; using fewer, yet clearer commands, teaching your child that compliance is expected and enforced, and that you will not back down in the face of tantrums/explosive episodes.

Overall, some parents and their children can benefit very much from delivering consequences that are contingent upon a child’s successful or unsuccessful fulfillment of specific target behaviours (such as complying with adults’ commands, doing homework, brushing teeth, etc.). However, since a consequence is an event that occurs after the fact, in order for it to be effective, one must have faith that the consequence administered following the last explosion/episode is going to be accessible and meaningful to your child the next time he/she gets frustrated.


The fact of the matter is that the use of consequences does not help children who already know what behaviours are undesirable and who are already motivated to be less explosive and inflexible. The use of consequences can be highly ineffective and actually quite harmful for children who are developmentally compromised in two essential skills:

  1. The first of which involves being able to be flexible in shifting from their own agenda to that of their parents in response to commands (this holds true even when faced with consequences that are clear and meaningful- no matter how enticing the reward or aversive the punishment).
  2. The second essential skill is being capable of managing their emotions well enough in the midst of frustration. If such a child becomes so overcome with frustration, they become cognitively debilitated to then experience enormous difficulty recalling or appreciating how much they disliked the consequences you applied last time they behaved inappropriately.

**If your child could be less inflexible and explosive, he/she most assuredly would.

Other Possibilities and Considerations

  • As a parent, try to recognize early warning signs and become aware of the antecedents that precede or fuel inflexible-explosive episodes. There is no question that some episodes seem to come out of the blue, but most are actually predictable. You’ll be taken less by surprise if you can try to prepare yourself and your child in advance.
  • Try to be more realistic about which frustrations your child can handle and more open to eliminating unimportant, unnecessary frustrations, thereby reducing opportunities for meltdowns.
  • Prioritizing when and on what issues adult authority is asserted can go a long way (i.e. knowing when to pick your battles).
  • When children are stuck in the red haze of inflexibility and frustration, they respond better if they perceive adults as potential helpers, rather than as enemies. Rather than punishing and teaching your child who is boss, you’ll instead be helping with some of the things they are really struggling with.
  • Helpful alternatives to punishing can include: discipline that teaches, which is neither permissive or punitive, focus on solutions and on showing your child how to make amends, giving choices, as well as problem solving with your child to try to arrive at mutually respectful solutions.

Final Note

As a parent, how you label and characterize your child’s behaviour can make a world of difference. Over time, by telling your child that he/she is manipulative, attention-seeking, stubborn, controlling, and/or angry, an unfortunate thing may happen- they will start to believe you. More useful language can encompass talking to your child about how they are easily frustrated, how they can have trouble thinking clearly and considering their options when in the midst of frustration. Children are undoubtedly more receptive to being helped when this kind of terminology is used.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *