The Problem(s) with Punishment

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I came across an article today about how to "fix" the behaviour of tweens. It seems like disrespectful behaviour is a part of the rite of passage into adolescence, and the article had a lot of good suggestions to help parents address problems that arise as children individuate and question their parents' authority. Although it wasn't particularly surprising, I was a little disappointed by one of their suggestions: punishment for back-talk.

Most parents agree that there are 4 rules when it comes to punishment: it should be reasonable, consistent, immediate, and meaningful. This is where the problems come in.

What's reasonable and consistent? Parenting experts agreed years ago that time-outs shouldn't be longer than 1 minute per year of age; that is, an 8 year-old should have a time-out that's about 8 minutes long. We've spoken about the downside of separation-based discipline before, but there's another part of the puzzle: is it reasonable to punish a child for doing something that is not socially appropriate but is developmentally appropriate? Negative reactions (including punishment) to a toddler's natural tendency to "test the limits" of adults' rules seem to create a negative spiral leading to worse behaviour. If it's New Years Eve and your child is up for 2 hours past his bedtime, should he be punished if he becomes emotional about minor problems? This is a difficult issue for parents to tackle, in my opinion. Having the same reaction to a behaviour in all situations for the sake of consistency doesn't seem so reasonable. I think parents need to have high (but reasonable) expectations for a child's behaviour, but I'm not sure that punishment is the best way to encourage kids to meet those expectations.

I'll be honest, when my kids were small, I was a very strict parent. Consistency was very important, and I sent my kids into time-out for all kinds of infractions. They needed to learn the rules and to be motivated to follow them, as far as I was concerned. It took a while for me to realize that they knew the rules, and they generally wanted to follow them; they usually felt bad about misbehaving. More often than not, problems occurred when they were tired or hungry. So what good was punishment?

The problem with immediacy: Punishment is based on the theory that kids require negative consequences to learn not to engage in inappropriate behaviour. For this learning to occur, the consequences must be immediate, or the behaviour and the punishment will not be linked. If a child is doing something that is aggravating or inappropriate, most parents begin by telling the child to stop, and then warning them of the consequence that will occur if they do not comply. Often, though, we give consequences while we're angry or frustrated (I'm certainly guilty of this); as a result, the punishment sometimes outweighs the crime. Then (for consistency's sake), we feel like we have to stand by our initial consequence. And we feel kind of guilty. And our child is likely to feel frustrated or angry. Again, does punishment solve the problem behaviour?

What's meaningful? Punishment is an external motivator to encourage compliance. We hope that our children will be motivated to behave pro-socially by their family's values, their moral compass, or other internal factors. If kids are internally motivated to behave appropriately (even though they will still make mistakes), punishment shouldn't be necessary. If kids require external motivation to follow the rules, punishment might be helpful, but with these kids, an "arms race" can develop. Taking away a favourite toy might work for a while, but eventually a child might not care so much about that consequence; the punishment must become bigger and bigger in order to get the desired reaction. Parents often begin to feel that taking privileges away no longer works and they're left without an alternative option.

Overall, I think prevention is the key. Punishment becomes unnecessary if you can prevent the negative behaviour from happening. Problem situations are often predictable and can be managed with careful planning; bringing activity books to a restaurant might reduce the odds that your kids will get into trouble when they get bored, for example. Understanding that behaviour sometimes is communicating a message that the child is unable to put into words can be important as well. Dr. Giuseppe and I are going to keep talking about and writing about alternatives to punishment that maintain a parent's authority - not only because it's important for other parents, but because we need to think about these situations in our own families as well!

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor. Doctor Brian discussed kids in general in this article, but every child is unique; your experience may vary.