Dad's picture

Punishment Without Psychological Damage: An Essential Tool For Parents

Punisher Parent:  Don't worry, we're just playing.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.

  1. The child gets bent over and spanked until she agrees to watch the movie.
  2. 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?


Hope you liked the post. Please do me a favour ...


"As I mentioned, you can’t

Jessica07's picture

"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. "  << Very well said.  :)

As a person who used to train

Jenn N's picture

As a person who used to train dogs professionally, I'll give you a hint for your next dog. Use words that other people can't ruin. Everyday words that you will remember and will work for your family. When training 'come' use 'raspberry' or 'to me' or whatever you can be consistent with that other people typically will not use. Dogs will still learn in a haphazard way, the typical commands, through exposure to friends, family and friendly strangers, while not ever losing your immediate and rewarding one word command.

Having trained so many dogs (and their owners) over the years, it's amazing to me how similar training a child can be. I utilize a lot of the same learning behaviour theory with my 20 month old as I do with dogs. When he was only a year old I remember being frustrated by a behaviour and going to the Early Years Center staff for advice. After they gave me the solution I thought 'that's exactly what I would tell a puppy owner if the dog was offering this behaviour'. Now before seeking advice I think 'what would I tell a dog owner, and can I apply this to a child?' and often times the answer is yes!

Today, my two year old son

Bogusia's picture

Today, my two year old son peed on the bathroom floor instead of the potty.  He instantly started to cry, then even before I had a chance to respond, he got some toilet paper and started whiping the pee off the floor.  I was stunned!  I had to say nothing, and he already knew what to do!  Then, I realized that his response was not instinctive... it was learned.  I remembered all the times recently he's spilled something (milk, juice, water, etc.).  My initial response to his spills was anger.  I guess that's why he cried right away this time... preempting my anger.  Then everytime he spilled his drinks, his brothers came to his rescue and started cleaning up his spill (probably to get on my good side).  I always complemented them profusely for cleaning up for him.  But he learned from this!  When he peed this morning, he knew he did bad, but then he knew what to do to solve the problem.  The cleaning up was not a punishment for him, it was a solution!

Thanks for this post, it really cleared things up for me.

Punishment vs discipline. Do

Dean Mehrkens's picture

Punishment vs discipline. Do you distinguish between the two or just lump them both together? I ask because it seems like you're describing two different ideas (punishment and discipline) but call them both punishment. Maybe I'm just a nit-picky word junky, but some clarification on that would be great.

Discipline is a process more

Dean Mehrkens's picture

Discipline is a process more related to training, using instruction, guidance, and correcting a kid to achieve the goal of instilling certain values and behaviors.

I guess my understanding of punishment is to pay someone back for what they've done. Remuneration. That seems a bit off when thinking of a parent/child relationship, and I didn't get the idea that's what you meant by punishment, hence my confusion.

I think your main point stands strong. Talking a kid's ear off isn't going to accomplish as much as some well placed, severe, consequences. Keep up the good posts. You're fun to read.

All of this makes total sense

spider's picture

All of this makes total sense, although I despair at the thought of not being able to control punishment outside the home.  There are behaviours I really don't want him to go on with that are allowed or even encouraged at grandparents and even great grandparents, and the first part of the post just pointed out exactly how this can undermine me.   I try to explain that at other people's houses there are different rules and if he lived full-time with those people they probably would have different standards, but still it teaches that these behaviours are OK sometimes.  

Sorry this was quite a while

spider's picture

Sorry this was quite a while ago... if I can still answer then  I guess the best example to use is when we go to my mum's for dinner.  Sometimes she'll spend a lot of effort cooking something and when it's set down on the table, my son announces he won't even try it and that he wants something made especially for him for dinner.  Now if this were at home, if it's a new food I'd say he has to try to a certain portion of it before I cook anything else (and more often than not it turns out he likes the new food after all), and if it's something he's happily eaten in the past, then it's a take it or leave it scenario.  But my mum will ignore my protests, and leave her dinner to get cold to go out to make scrambled eggs, or let him skip straight to dessert.   I don't expect her to waste her energy trying to deal with him, but just to let me handle it instead of giving into him as if I weren't there.  As a result, more and more at home he's retorting with "But Grandma would let me do that!  I wish I lived with Grandma" or any other relative that panders to him like that.  

He's an only child too and there are no other grandchildren, so I really don't want to raise a spoilt self-entitled brat, especially one who can't eat normal dinners with people because he thinks scrambled eggs & ice cream are an acceptable meal.  For now it's only trivial stuff like dinners and when to play video games and when to watch TV and when to do homework, but it's starting to show that it's undermining my authority overall.   He's 6 and he's starting to chuck tantrums when he doesn't get his way that I haven't seen since a brief tantrum phase when he was 2.  

This might seem harsh, but as

Jenn N's picture

This might seem harsh, but as an older first time parent I just refuse to put up with things like that. Case in point - my father insists that he be allowed to give our son junk food. I insist that he is not allowed, until the age of 2.5 or 3 years old. I don't want a one year old getting a chocolate covered ice cream bar for desert. When my Dad pushed the issue, I scooped up the baby and said we would leave, rather than cause a scene. That was dramatic, but I was very ready to leave in order to ensure my parenting of my child was adhered to while in my presence. They gave up the fight to feed him junk (for now) and I think we all learned a lesson that day. Don't make Momma mad ;)


Jk Allen's picture

First off - the picture is classic...and I mean classic!
I think this post offered great clarity of what punishment can and can't help with. Often times as parents we punish out of frustration, and in those instances, all we do is mentally harm our children, not teach them. My mom would punish me at times and I didn't know why - that led me to be timid around her because I didn't know what I did wrong to upset her. I'm sure I deserved it, but I was just such a bad little kid I didn't not exactly what I was always being punished for.
With my own kids - my wife and I speak to them and explain what they've done wrong - and why. We don't reason - but we try to be clear that we don't fall under the same footsteps as our parents.
I must tell you my friend, this post was covered it all. In my opinion, this is PDF material to offer to your readers as downloadable content. It would be nice to print this and use as a reference. Simply Awesome! 

This is a great post.  I love

Amy's picture

This is a great post.  I love that you don't have a no-swearing rule (maybe because we don't either :) ) because you can't enforce it.  I think that goes a long way toward teaching your kids honesty, too.  I know that there are different standards different places, but I think one of the essentials of honesty is that you are the same person no matter where you are. 

By not enforcing that no swearing rule, you're not forcing your kids to "lie" about who they are one place or another. 

Great food for thought!  :)

Dear Dad, how do I get my six

Hannah's picture

Dear Dad, how do I get my six year old to brush her teeth, which she totally dislikes because she doesn't like toothpaste to get on her lips.  She is a very quirky child.  I have to be talk to her sternly and matter of factly but there are times when I am so tired, because I have two other kids and work part time, that I just don't have the energy... because she is strong willed and tries to outsmart me.  I am too tired to chase her around., when she doesn't want to comply.  Any ideas please?





So how do I get my four boys

Clarissa's picture

So how do I get my four boys to do their chores? I've told them that if they are done within a certain timeframe then we can go to the park for example.
They don't care- play with their friends- dont care- they just find little things to do with eachother they share rooms so I can't make them stay in there.
What were your ideas for rewarding them when they do something they are supposed to do?
I finally told them unless they do their work, they shouldn't expect to eat in the real world if u don't work- u don't eat. It sounds cruel but that is life and we need to respect it. We are enabling society and what better time to teach them these things than at home?
Well after they realized how hungry they were and they were going to have to do something for something, they did their chore quickly and the best I have seen them do their chores. I gave them lots of praises and of course all they wanted to eat. They were kinder to eachother and very appreciative of the food and spoke kinder to me. It's good to be able to appreciate things and not expect life to be handed to you.
It seems to have been a good thing- but I am not an expert.

I just finished reading this

Jon's picture

I just finished reading this post and the one on rewards, but I have a situation that has me stumped.

My 5 year old daughter is in Kindergarten. They have a reward/punishment system of colored cards. All the kids start out with a green card. If they're good during the day -- listening to their teacher, getting their work done, etc. -- the card stays green. If it's green at the end of the day, they get a piece of candy.

If they misbehave, they get a yellow card, which I consider nothing more than a "warning" card.

If they continue to misbehave, they get a red card. They don't get any candy and lose a few minor rewards in the classroom for the rest of the day.

Well my daughter was getting one red card after another. We knew this because she'd tell us about it after school, but the teacher never contacted us, so we were hesitant to do much about it. Then about 5 weeks ago we had our first parent/teacher conference. Apparently her behavior at school was considered really bad, and the teacher was eager for us to help determine a solution. Of course, we apologized for her behavior and promised to do whatever we could to help correct it. We ended up with a system where the teacher sends me an email if she gets a red card, and we carry out punishments at home.

What we have come up with so far is this...

If she gets a red card, she's confined to her room after school that night except for eating supper with the family, and except for a quick bath if it's bath night (but no bath toys).

If she has gotten a red card, but then gets a green card the next day, or if she gets several green cards in a row, we praise her for being good. We've even had her call her grandparents to let them know she's been good and get praise from them too.

This system has reduced the number of red cards, but not entirely eliminated them. She does know that her behavior at school that gets her a red card is wrong (often it's either not getting work done on time, or talking when she should be working). But it seems like the punishment part of our system isn't really working. It's challenging because often we get the email from the teacher that she got a red card around 1:00 PM, but we don't pick her up from her after school program until 5:00 PM. So there's no way to have an immediate consequence. Also, if we equated this to the "real world" and considered school a job, in the real world she'd be fired. However, she can't be fired from school. So I'm not sure if there's a better punishment we can use to discourage the red card behavior?

Hi.  First, thanks for the

Cindy's picture

Hi.  First, thanks for the great article.  Now for a dilemna I'd love some advice on!  

My five year old, to most people, seems to be very sweet and affectionate.  He generally gets along with most people.  He has lots of friends and lots of little girls at school w/ crushes on him whom he is very sweet & loving with.  However he can be pretty black and white about things (afterall, if he doesn't like the taste of fish, he doesn't like the taste of fish, right?).  It's like he quickly gets a vibe or feeling from people and if he likes you right away, he likes you and that's it.  If he doesn't like someone or something, there isn't too much one can do to change his mind.  Unfortuantely, my mother-in-law is one of those people.  Since he was very young, she has been very pushy about demanding hugs and kisses and his attention... and when she isn't given what she wants, she very openly complains about him right in front of him and/or my husband and I in a pretty negative way.  Or, she will do things like threaten to take away his bday gift she just gave him the day before if he doesn't kiss or hug her goodnight.  She is so desperate for his affection, but it's like whatever she does, he gets turned off by it and her vocal complaints make it all the worse.  The more she complains or pushes or demands, the more he pulls away.  I guess I can relate to this kind of reaction, to be honest.  It turns me off, too.  But of course as his parents, it makes for some really uncomfortable moments.  My husband feels bad our child doesn't respond well to his mom, and sometimes ends up taking this out on our son as it is easier for him to do that vs. confront his mom (another issue altogether), which I disagree with as I don't think it's right to put this problem onto a five yr old.  And although I don't like or agree with a lot of the things she does/says, I am also embarrased and try to encourage him to talk nice with her or to play w/ her.  I don't know if it's right, but many times I offer an incentive for him to act nice towards her just so we can all avoid these uncomfortable moments.  These typically work for the immediate situation, but it doesn't last.  As you can see, visits from her create a lot of anxiety for us all.  It doesn't help she stays 7-10 days at a time... and things just get worse and worse as the time passes.   The problem is if you try to confront her about things, she lies about them and acts like she never ever did or said those things.  If you try to advise her in a nice way to not push him lest he pull away more, she just ignores you or complains even more.  If you try to tell her ways to approach our child that work better, she doesn't listen.  If you suggest shorter visits, she refuses.  She also somehow believes that if I take her to buy him a present when she first arrives, then our child will like her and things will go better.  "Buying him" with gifts only lasts temporarily of course.  So for years there has been this negative vibe between them.   Every ONCE in a great while, they have a nice moment where she can capture his interest to play w/ him for a bit.  But it's rare and shortlived.  Soon he's back to disliking her.

We have been trying to encourage him to be nice with her, to talk nice/play nice, etc.  I remind him that she is daddy's mom and being nice to her will also make daddy feel happy, too.  I even admit that even though sometimes she does things or says things that mommy doesn't like, I try to still always talk nice to her and be kind, and that he should try to do the same.  However, I also believe he shouldn't be forced to show affection if it's not what is in his heart.  (isn't that wrong?).  I tell him that if it's his heart to kiss or hug her, that he can do that and it's ok.  But he more often than not doesn't want to.  So I don't want to punish him for following his heart, yet feel like there some be some disclipine around at least being more polite to her than he generally tends to be.  Do you have anything you can suggest?  I realize, unfortunately, the one who probably needs to change the most is more than likely 'too old to change her ways'.  Thanks for any ideas!

Hello Dad.

Wendy's picture

Hello Dad.

Allow me to share my experience from Punishments, just to warn some parents out there  

*I think it's my fault to be punished but I know I am almost overpunished-- I know my parents worry that I will not be ready when they die, but I think I will not be ready anymore with my own experience.

Allow me to ellaborate: 

I guess I am the only one posting here as the child, I hope I am on the right page. I just want to share bits and pieces of my memory as a child about my parents. I am half Chinese - that's something to start with. I was living with mu Uncle and Aunt because they were in the City where the school was where my parents want to send me and my sister. I was pampered by my Uncle and his family but I knew I was alot smarter and a leader in the class but my attitude with my peers also was problematic - being bluntly straighforward with what I want to say - dead honest but I was an insensitive person. Whenever my mom would visit us - I was always afraid of her getting angry with me. She's always stopping my bad behaviour as much as she could.

I know and admire my parent's reputation and lifestyle being the perfect couple & parents. But my elder sister was luckier to surpass immaturity and she turns out fine, but I myself seemed to have been trapped to myself. I am now 30 and I still get spanked due to my bad behaviour  [ I have worked overseas for years and back home with my family as I felt I have became too distant from them, therefore I know what I am when I am alone]. To sum it up....I am not able to connect with the close people very well, I have never confided about this to anyone but my mom would always say that no parents want to get angry with their children - but she says I am too much and she swears she will do her best to change / teach me even if I seem hopeless. 

I do have friends but I have never bonded with them as other people would have. I always held back. I do know know that my fate is my own doing...but running away is never the best solution....but what I want to share is that - for parents who hit their children too hard and too frequent, from myself I have somehow evolved into something like a dumb, hard wood. I was pro active and now I am 70 % passive.  All the beatings stayed in my head like a broken record, not because I chose to but because it has embeded in my mental reflex and physical reaction in a day-to-day basis. I have become an assuming person and would rather move away from conflict than addressing it properly. I am not blaming my parents but I feel sorry for them if I wasnt the photocopy of their character-DNA. I know what I am capable of, but our lifestyle will never match - "I am just waiting for my rocket to come" and hopefully they still get to see the better me when i am able to  be totally independent from them.  But the way my mom lays out the rules - kinda is the same reason we're kinda trapped with each other flaws.  

I cannot work in the ever evolving corporate world-its too stressdul for me. I did, but I excel in publishing  because of the work segregation and creatives is my talent.But I cannot multi-task with vareity of work (secretarial, desk jobs). I am an artist, I know I can be a good one, but with the lifestlye I have I cannot explore and have a quiet mind. I am the youngest in the family so I just let them do what they want to while I will wait for my turn.

The point of my email is I'd like to show I know my flaws, but  the punishment  I have is just a permanent scar to my character, I have lost my abilities to be quick and decisive when I was young. Now, I can not trust my initial reactions to my judgemtns and instincts. I always have a playback of memories. When it comes to intimate relationships, I would rather start to build relationships when I am through with my own psycho issues. -----  although I did have start ups, but I'd rather commit when I am ready - and if it never comes, I better stay single and not pass on my own issues. --- sorry for the long post --- just wanted to share.

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In our home, we have a rule

Linda Lichtenstein's picture

In our home, we have a rule that no friends are allowed over when their are no parents at home. My 15 year old son brought three people to our home and as a result, several items were stolen from our home. We have told him that he will come home right after school, do his homework, and then we are going to have him clean various rooms. We have taken phone, going out with friends, Tv etc. until further notice. This is a child who has never been in trouble before with any teacher etc. What do you think?