I have been in the field of education, child care, or social work for the past 20 years. I have spent my entire life working with young children and their families. This work, paired with hundreds of books, and many trainings on trauma, crisis intervention, behavior management, developmentally appropriate practice, and parenting strategies, have taught me much, but nothing so potent as THIS ONE THING:
Punishment does not work.
I recently tuned into a local radio station as they took calls to answer the question,
“What’s the most creative way you’ve ever punished your kids?”
“Really?” I thought to myself, “People are still punishing their kids?”
Apparently I’ve been living in my own little progressive parenting bubble—steeped in best practice and positive discipline for so long. I listened to the radio show, too mad to dial in, and realized: people actually don’t know.
I’ve been writing this blog for six years about the best ways for families grow and thrive: mutual respect, emotional competence, and LOVE. Punishment just doesn’t fit in. Here’s a few specifics on why it is not helpful (except in the VERY short term—and parenting is NOT a short-term project), and what you can do instead to foster connection and cooperation in your home.
1. It hurts: The goal of punishment is to cause discomfort (or even pain in the case of corporeal punishment) in order to get children to do what we want. Regardless of whether or not what we want them to do is the “right thing,” the act of inflicting punishment always creates an “us vs. them” rift between adult and child. This divide diminishes closeness and communication—even if you don’t want it to—and the result will be lost trust and decreased credibility as an ally in the eyes of your child. THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU DON’T HAVE BOUNDARIES! Structure and limits are essential for creating safety and security for young people. It is crucial that parents hold limits from a perspective of safety for kids, “I cannot let you touch the hot stove,” and self-care and emotional regulation for the adult, “I can’t get you milk until I finish my dinner because if I do I will be hangry.” This is reality—enforced with love—not punishment.
2. It’s coercive: A lot of times kids are punished for behaving in socially unacceptable ways. For example: yelling, screaming, and aggression. Unfortunately, this is normal! Children are generally terrible at regulating their emotions—this is due to the fact that their executive function (i.e. prefrontal cortex—their ability to control themselves) is not developed yet. Punishing children for behaviors they exhibit when they are stuck in the emotional (limbic) or fear (brain stem) parts of their brain is not only totally ineffective at creating long-term learning, it hinders the syncing and integration of these three parts of the brain. Ironically, punishment hampers the wiring that would produce better self-regulation and impulse control. Holding limits with kind firmness while offering to listen to upset is a muscle parents can grow through consistent practice. All feelings are OK, all actions are not—putting limits on emotions is a recipe for disaster. Instead, learn to stop an action (hitting) while inviting emotional offload (crying and even yelling)—there is a learning curve here, but it can be done!
3. It’s punitive: This is often the case for perceived moral infractions like lying, sneaking, or stealing. Children who lie, cheat, or steal are often testing out behaviors innocently (as in they honestly don’t “know better”) or they have seen others model them and are following suit. Other times these behaviors are a bid for attention. If you react with punishment, you are reinforcing disconnection—exactly the opposite of what would help them feel safe, understand themselves better, and stop the behavior. Instead of blame and shame in these scenarios, frame the situation in terms of impact. First, get thyself calm! If you are upset, you will not be a helpful guide for the young person. Then offer an objective overview of what happened and reflect feelings. This is a basic restorative justice model.
4. It’s an empathy-killer: When you punish, you diminish a child’s ability to focus on another’s experience and be accountable. These are the roots of empathy and compassion—the precursor to healthy relationships and a well-functioning society. Punishment always bring the focus of the punished onto themselves. One cannot think of others, acknowledge impact of wrongdoing, or aim to make amends while being made to suffer. As an alternative, you can discuss feelings and impact. This provides a start for being able to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
As parent educator Pam Leo likes to say, “You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse.” Next time you feel inspired to punish—no matter how creatively—stop and breathe for a minute. Then, take a less reactive and more authentic action: keep everyone safe, express your feelings, and narrate what happened and what effect it had. This is where true discipline—teaching and learning—can begin.