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Why Punishment Doesn't Work and What Does

Surely we have to punish our kids? If we don't, they will become spoiled brats right? Wrong. This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions in parenting. Psychologists over the years haven't helped with this belief. The focus of behaviour change in the past, has been on rewards and punishments. Our whole society is built on this way of thinking. If we speed in our car and get caught, we get punished with a fine. Of course we have to have rules but does the punishment actually work? If you think about speeding, my guess is that you have driven over the speed limit before. If you see a police car, you probably put your foot on the break and slow down (even if you weren't speeding). But when the police car is out of sight your speed will go back up. If you get fined, you probably won't speed for a while, but eventually you will speed again. The need to follow that rule hasn't been internalised, you only follow the rules when the "punisher" (police) is there. The same is true with our kids, they will avoid the behaviour while you (the "punisher") is there, but if they are only stopping to avoid the punishment then they will do it when you aren't there.



Children need Discipline not Punishment.


So should we let kids just do whatever they want? Absolutely not. Children need guidance and direction. They need to be taught what is right and what is wrong, but they don't need to be hurt in the process. Punishment and discipline have too often been used as interchangeable terms but really they are polar opposites. Punishment is causing deliberate harm as a retribution. Or in other words, making something bad happen to someone as a way to make them "pay" for what they did. Discipline is teaching and directing your child to understand and take responsibility for their actions.


There has been so much research to prove that punishment isn't effective in the long-term (Markhams 2014, Psychology Today). Of all the studies there are key reasons why punishment just doesn't seem to bring long-term change.


But why doesn't punishment work?


* When we punish a child, they focus on what is happening to them rather than what they did that was wrong in the first place. They become more selfish and don't develop empathy for others.


* Punishment actually encourages children to lie and avoid punishment rather than avoiding the behaviour you are trying to stop


* You tend to need to keep increasing the punishments to make them work. Often parents have a list of punishments that they will try to use to control their child's behaviour. Usually, what worked for a while will stop working and you need to keep increasing the threats


* Punishment makes the child feel bad about themselves not what they did. If a child sees themselves as a "bad" person, it makes sense that they will do "bad" things.


* Children don't learn to take responsibility for their own behaviour. They tend to see their behaviour being driven by someone else. They will tend to blame others for what they did and see that they need a parents to control the behaviour


* Punishment doesn't address what was behind the behaviour in the first place. It doesn't help the child learn to express their emotions, it squashes their needs and sends the message that their feelings aren't important.


* Punishment, even time outs and taking away privileges, damages our relationship with our child. When children feel disconnected from their parents, their motivation to please their parents is gone.



How Discipline works


Set limits with explanation.

Of course you need to have rules. We want our kids to grow and be adults that share our values. Make your expectations clear when talking to your child and explain why. A child is more likely to follow a rule if they understand why we have that rule in the first place. So,

it could be that they need to unpack the dishwasher. You can explain that in a family we all need to help each other and we all have jobs. The dishwasher is their job.


But you can also acknowledge their perspective. When kids feel understood, they're more able to accept our limits. Understand that it is difficult to follow the rules sometimes. If possible, give a choice or a redirection about what the child CAN do to meet her needs or solve her problem. For example "you wish you could play longer. It's hard to stop playing and get ready for bed. Would you like to choose a book for us to read in bed?"


Allow logical consequences

Where you can let your child feel the consequence of their behaviour. Obviously that doesn't mean letting them run out on the road or something that is dangerous, but work with them to fix what they did wrong. If they drew on the wall, they can help clean it. If they hurt someone, they need to work out what they can do to mend the relationship. By doing this the child is learning to take responsibility for what happened and learning how they can restore whatever the damage was. Having logical consequences links the child's behaviour to the rule that was broken in a meaningful way.


Builds on the child/parent relationship

One of the most effective influence that we have on our child is your relationship with them. If we are trying to teach (discipline) our children we are doing it for them to learn and grow not to harm. When we are disciplining our child, we are sitting with them, explaining what the rules were that were broken, what the consequence is and problem solving with them how they can fix it. By doing this we are working together as a team not an "us and them" type mentality. We show understanding for how they felt and we also talk about how we or others in the situation felt. By acknowledging theirs and our feelings we will connect with them and build understanding.



Ultimately parents are trying to do their best to help their children grow and develop into "good" people. Unfortunately we have been brought up in a world where punishment has always been the main way to control behaviour. The problem is that if we really want our kids to develop a moral conscience and take responsibility for their actions, punishment simply doesn't work. We need to discipline our kids in the true sense of the word; teach direct and guide them. We need to work with them and not be an authority to cause fear, but someone that will help them develop to the same moral standard we have.


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©2019 by Krysten Taprell