What is punishment?
Punishment has been widely used to modify children’s behaviour throughout history. Its use reduces the possibility that the child will repeat the inappropriate behaviour. There are different types of punishment based on removing a stimulus that is pleasant for the child (for example, not letting him/her watch television for a while) or applying an aversive stimulus (for example, a slap or a verbal reprimand) when he/she performs a maladaptive or inappropriate behaviour.
In recent years, the use of this strategy, especially when it causes aversive consequences for the child, has been under debate within general child psychology, especially in the area of parenting, since many studies have shown that the side effects it generates can greatly outweigh the advantages we obtain from applying it. In this article we will review these side effects, why it is still used so much and some alternatives to educate our children.
Side effects of punishment
As mentioned in the previous section, through punishment we can get the child to stop doing what we do not want him/her to do, but at the same time, we will be generating some negative side effects both on the child and on ourselves.
Punishment does not usually generate understanding
It does not help to think about why he/she does or does not do that, but it generates that the child stops doing what he/she was doing or does not repeat it in the future, for fear rather than really understanding why he/she should not do it. It is not uncommon that, when we ask a child why he/she should not hit a classmate, he/she responds with “if I do it, the teacher and my parents will scold me”.
It generates negative emotional responses
In the children, these reactions can range from fear, sadness, anger, shame, guilt, insecurity, humiliation, resentment, etc. It makes sense that these emotions arise since they are in a position of inequality in which they cannot defend themselves and often do not understand why they are receiving such punishment. Mostly, they do not understand because it is often not explained to them (we have all heard the typical phrase “because I say so, period!” from an adult).
In the adults, emotions of anger or frustration can also be generated when we see, for example, that the child does not react as we would like, sadness when we see how he/she moves away from us because he/she is afraid of us, or guilt or shame when we realize that we have acted unfairly and have unloaded our tension on the child.
It makes adaptive learning difficult
These emotions will make it difficult for adaptive learning to occur, since the child will learn to act only to avoid punishment (e.g., lying, not answering a question in class for fear of making a mistake, distancing him/herself from his/her parents, etc.). Thus, the child may end up avoiding many situations or people (such as school or parents) for fear of being punished, which leads to more negative consequences.
The child may also learn that it is adaptive to become aggressive because this is what works for his/her parents (let’s not forget that parents or caregivers are the main role model for their children), so it may happen that he/she uses this way in his/her daily routine and in his/her future. The opposite may also happen, and they may learn that the only way to proceed in situations where someone commits an injustice to me is to do nothing because I have no power to change anything or to defend myself. Regarding to parents, when we see that punishment “works”, because the child stops doing what we do not want him to do, we can fall into the vicious circle of continuing to use this strategy without considering the collateral effects.
Deterioration in the child’s self-esteem
All this can cause a deterioration in children’s self-esteem and great insecurity, since they will have learned that many of the things they do are “wrong” and/or that it is necessary to make sure that what they do is “right”, to avoid aversive consequences.
Why is punishment used so much?
This is a great question, considering the side effects it generates and that it is ethically reprehensible in many cases. Some of the reasons for its widespread use are the following:
- Due to social and cultural inertia. We are so used to it (less and less, fortunately) that many parents do not consider another way to educate their children, probably because they have not seen other ways to do it when they were little.
- It is “easier” to punish than to educate. Punishing usually takes less time because the effects are more immediate. For example, a father sees his son hitting his sister and slaps him. Directly the child stops hitting his sister. It is a quick, immediate method, and at short-term it seems to be effective, but at long-term we have already seen the negative consequences that this punishment can cause. Educating, on the other hand, takes more time because we have to explain to the child why it is not right for him to hit his sister and we have to manage the possible emotional reactions that the child may have, such as tantrums, crying or trying to hit his sister again. In short, we will need more patience and time, which makes it more likely that some parents will opt for the “fast” track.
- The fact that the behaviour we want to eliminate is reduced, makes it more likely that we will use this method again in the future, since we also get something when we apply it (the behaviour that generates our discomfort is eliminated and that is very reinforcing for us). For example, let’s imagine a father who is at the supermarket with his daughter and the girl starts crying outrageously because she wants a candy. The father, feeling embarrassed because many people are watching them, tells her that if she does not stop crying, when they get home, he will spank her. The girl stops crying, which is a relief for the father because he no longer feels so uncomfortable and embarrassed. This will make him more likely to use this strategy again next time.
What does it depend on whether the punishment is effective or positive?
If the child is punished, there are a few things that must be considered for the punishment to be effective.
- The intensity of the aversive stimulus. To be useful, the intensity must be high, but not too high because otherwise the side effects will outweigh the advantages, and if the intensity is too low, the child can get used to the punishment and stops responding to it.
- The application of punishment must be consistent and applied whenever the behaviour we want to eliminate occurs. If sometimes we apply it and sometimes, we do not, the child will notice and may “play it up” to see if on that occasion there are no consequences.
- It is important that the punishment is applied just after the inappropriate behaviour has been carried out, so that it is more effective. This is sometimes not possible and will diminish the effect of the punishment.
Although sometimes punishment can work, we must take into account that it is a strategy that does not educate in values, but that children stop acting inadequately for fear of reprimands, deteriorates the bond between them and the parents, causes very negative emotions and teaches avoidant, conformist or aggressive styles of problem solving. In short, the disadvantages of punishment are so great and important and the conditions for it to be effective are so restrictive, that the use of punishment should be reduced only in extreme cases, such as when someone’s physical integrity is compromised.
What we can do?
So, if we do not punish, what can we do to make our children listen to us? The answer is very broad, but here are some tips that may be useful to you:
- Do not focus only on eliminating inappropriate behaviours, but rather on encouraging the appropriate ones (for example, praising him when he is playing respectfully with his sister).
- Explain clearly and affectionately the consequences of his actions.
- Help them to identify and regulate their emotions.
- Let them experience for themselves the consequences of their behaviour (when they are not in situations where they or others are in danger).
For more information, you can consult our blog on “What to do when my child misbehaves?”. We know that raising children is not an easy task. Therefore, do not hesitate to contact us if you think we can help you.
Aina Fiol Veny
Psychologist Col. Nº B-02615