Punishment is the old, unenlightened way right? Wrong! Punishment, used correctly, will save your sanity and slay those unwanted behaviours. Punishment is essential in the parent’s toolbox. Some people think it has no place, but it can save you a lot of time to get to the same destination -- and that time can be used by the child to learn other things.
What can punishment do for parents?
Punishment is only good for turning off behaviour. You cannot teach a child what TO DO with punishment, only what NOT TO DO. If you have a child with a behaviour that you want to extinguish, then punishment is sometimes, but not always, one of the best ways to do it.
* Does your child leave messes behind? Punishment can help.
* Is your child mean or rude to others? Punishment can help.
* Does your child have tantrums when she doesn’t get her way? Punishment can help.
On the other hand:
* Does your child have messy writing? Punishment will not help.
* Does your child use their hands to eat? Punishment will not help.
* Is your child afraid to swim on his own? Punishment will not help.
It isn’t black or white. Punishment can have weak or strong learning effects in many situations.
So when does punishment work?
Punishment works when three things are true:
The Child Knows What To Do
As I mentioned, you can’t teach something to a child through punishment, you can only stop a "bad" behaviour. If the child doesn’t know how to turn off the punishment, by changing something, then punishment will poison your relationship and the child’s well-being. An example might be that you are trying to teach your child how to write but the child doesn’t yet have dexterity to write neatly. There is nothing the child can do to avoid a sloppy-writing punishment. Instead of correcting the writing you will instead give her feelings of helplessness, expectations of failure, and strain your parent-child relationship -- the child will feel that you are unfair. Before you ever use a punishing strategy ensure that the child knows exactly how to avoid the punishment.
You Can Totally Control the Environment
Never, ever, demand that your child behave a certain way unless you can enforce it. If you don't think you can enforce it, then you will have to convince your child to behave using a different technology.
This is why we don't have a no swearing rule for our kids. We couldn't enforce it! Our kids could swear out of earshot, hear swears from elsewhere, or even occasionally hear swears from us. There is no way we can create a no-swearing environment for our kids.
You teach a child to lead two lives when you punish at home, but are unable to punish outside of the home. She'll be a honey-tongued angel at home but you may be surprised to hear one day that she curses like a drunken sailor at school. Children, just like adults, will learn to behave differently in different situations anyway, but I recommend you try to keep them as honest as possible by not punishing more than the world punishes.
You must be able to cause the punishment to occur every time the bad behaviour is demonstrated. If you fail to cause the punishment to occur then our little grasshopper will notice,
“Wait a sec, I just did this supposedly bad thing, but nothing bad happened!”
Then, as smart as she is, young grasshopper will conclude,
“It must not always be bad.”
and then, as curious as she is, ask herself
“So when can I do this behaviour and get away with it?”
If you let your child get away with something, even once, then you may cause an INCREASE in the bad behaviour as your child sets about the challenge of figuring out the limits of when the punishment comes and when it doesn’t. A good example is how children often realize that a tantrum in public is 50 times more awesome than a tantrum at home -- many parents lack the courage to respond the same in public as they would at home.
Fixing what you broke through an inconsistent punishment is very difficult since you will have reinforced the bad behaviour and be left with almost no further power to change it. The only recourse is to make the punishment so severe that the child does not risk getting caught. In the old days, if a kid got caught skipping school or swearing they might be beaten or blessed with a soapy mouthwash. This appeared to stop the behaviour because, even though 4 out of 5 times the kid might get away with it, getting caught once resulted in punishment so terrible that the other four successes weren’t worth it. Even then, the child understands that the behaviour is not really “wrong” because the only time it gets punished is when he’s caught. Therefore, as soon as the child feels confident he won’t get caught or punished (such as when he’s a bit older) then he’ll feel free, even motivated, to do the bad behaviour. As a parent, you will have failed!
The Punishment is a Consequence of the Behaviour
The most critical aspect; the very secret to success in punishment! For behaviour modification to stick, kids need connect what they did to the result they got. Beatings, groundings, time-outs, etc are not good punishments for this very reason: They are hard to connect as a consequence of behaviour.
Your kid stayed out too late: Why on earth would that result in a beating or a grounding? The kid knows it’s just the parent flexing her authority. Furthermore, the kid knows that as soon the parent doesn’t have authority then that's the end of whatever rule is being reinforced. The child cannot make sense of what happened so they just blame you, the parent, for being a power-hungry lunatic.
Think of pouring a kettle of boiling water onto your lap. It is so easy to understand why the agony comes when water is poured into the lap: Hot water burns and burns are painful, therefore keep hot water off and you avoid a painful burn. You need to provide children with this kind of simple logic.
Consider these two punishments for a situation when a child throws a tantrum because she wants to watch The Little Mermaid, while everyone else in the family has collectively decided to watch Toy Story.
- The child gets bent over and spanked until she agrees to watch the movie.
- The child gets told to leave because she is bothering everyone else.
In the first case, as the child pieces together what happened, she may decide that she got spanked because mommy is bigger and the bigger person gets to decide who gets beat and when. Rule: Piss off the big people around me and I get spanked. Corollary: If I’m the big person, I get to decide what happens, including violence against those who disagree.
In the second case she should get a different message. She should understand that she’s making a lot of commotion and noise so the people around her want her to leave. Rule: Try to ruin other people’s fun and they won’t want me around. Corollary: Add to people’s fun and they’ll like to hang around with me! Sounds like a nice person.
How To Create a Good Punishment
First of all, don't use punishment unless you are brave enough go through with it each and every time. No chances! It's not a punishment if there are chances. Also, remember the pre-requisite: The child must have the skills to avoid punishment.
Second, imagine what would happen to you if you did what grasshopper did. If nothing would happen to you then DON'T PUNISH THE CHILD. On the other hand, if something would happen to you then just let that same thing happen to the child. It's almost always wrong to make the punishment more severe than you would experience if you did the same.
- If the child spills something or leaves a mess then they should clean it up because you would have to clean it.
- If the child breaks something, they should try to fix it or, since they probably can't fix it, they should ask and help a parent fix it.
- If the child throws a tantrum after losing a game then they aren't allowed to play again until they apologize. Your own friends would stop playing with you if you were a poor loser.
- We have a rule that if someone helps or talks to our child then our child has to respond instead of just ignoring the other person. Our punishment for this is that the child has to find that person and make their rudeness right. If they can't or won't then they get something similar to a tantrum punishment because people don't like rude people.
- We have a very severe punishment if our kid lies to us. To me, lying is one of the most terrible character flaws there is. I explained to my child several times that lying makes him a totally useless person. Nobody can trust anything that comes out of a liars mouth. There is no point ever listening to liars, talking to liars, doing things with liars -- liars are a waste of time and space. He knows this and, the one or two times he lied, he really got shunned and he had to apologize profusely to get back. I'm hoping that this teaches him to hate liars as well because there can be big benefits to lying -- namely being able to get out of trouble and being able to get ahead by cheating others. Once a kid discovers that lying works they wil soon become masters, so treat them as you would be treated if everyone knew you were a chronological liar.
Punishments don't have to be very bad. They just have to make sense. Explain it to the child and give them plenty of cues to learn that it's only the behaviour that caused the problem. In case of a tantrum to try to get their way, you make the child leave, but as soon as they stop the tantrum a little -- even to take a break between cries -- you can ask them if they'd like a snack or a book or other normal things that happen to non-tantrum children. If they connect behavour directly to the consequence then your relationship will be intact, your child's psyche will be intact, and your child will be a better person.
What do you think of punishment? Useful, or no? What are your strategies for correcting bad behaviour?