Go to your room. No computer for a week. You’re grounded. Ten minutes in time-out. No dessert for a month.
Most of us have been punished for something when we were kids. In western societies, punishment for children is not only acceptable, but expected; the very concept of a childhood without it can evoke ideas of children being coddled, letting them get away with things, or even parental negligence. Few children today are hit, spanked, or otherwise physically punished, but time-out and other “natural consequences” are accepted and promoted, by parenting experts, educators, even some child psychologists.
But does punishment work? When I was punished, my parents often sent me to my room, yelling at me to “think about what you’ve done.” I can’t remember even once calmly reconsidering the behavior that got me there in the first place; I do, however, remember the rage I felt towards my mom and dad and all the schemes I invented to get even with them. At age 10, I remember sneaking cookies at night after my parents had shut off their light instead of during the day, when I got caught. And in eighth grade, after being caught putting on makeup at the bus stop, I bought some at the drugstore near my school, kept it in my locker, and put it on in the morning in the school bathroom instead.
It seems that this reaction is universal among children. An article by Michael Karson, Ph.D., in Psychology Today shared the findings of an important study on lab rats which showed a negative result of a behavior did not make the rats stop the behavior, but only to try to elude the negative result. Humans are the same in this way: studies show consistently that children who are punished only stop the behavior when parents are around and they get progressively more skillful at not getting caught.
If parents use physical punishment, the results are even worse. According to an article in Parents magazine, “…decades of research have shown that children who have been routinely spanked are more likely to be aggressive when they get older, as well as to suffer from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.”
So if punishment is ineffective and even harmful, why do parents punish their kids? Karson argues for two reasons: Because it appears to work in the moment, and because we’re angry. Neither reason ultimately serves the supposed purpose of punishment: to help children learn.
To help us gain a deeper understanding of punishment and what to do instead, I spoke with child psychologist Tamara Soles from The Secure Child in Montreal. Her understanding of punishment and discipline grows out of years of study and practice and is based on the most current research and understanding of neurobiology and children’s development.
JS: Can you help us understand why kids misbehave?
TS: The need that some parents have to control their children is what fuels a lot of misbehavior in children. Children show challenging behaviors for a lot of reasons: to get attention, to test limits and boundaries, to assert their autonomy, and because they are incapable of regulating their emotions and behavior. Often the more rigid and controlling a parent is, the less flexible a child becomes. Power struggles ensue and nothing good ever comes from a power struggle. As parents, we need to remember that we don’t have to accept every invitation to a power struggle that our children extend to us.
JS: What is the mainstream North American take on punishment?
TS: The mainstream has shifted away from physical discipline and replaced it with ideas such as time-out, which has become the “go to” method for parents and indeed many if not most psychologists.
JS: Does time-out work?
TS: Interventions such as time-out can harm the parent-child relationship. They also don’t consider the decades of attachment research showing that particularly in times of emotional distress, humans need connection.
Time-out tells a child that their presence is only desired when they are “good.” It leaves them isolated and alone to deal with the most overwhelming of feelings, despite being too young to know how to regulate those emotions. Time-out often leaves parents and children engaging in a power struggle that all too often further escalates the situation and can leave a child feeling shamed or bad.
JS: Can you explain a bit about what’s happening in children’s brains to help us understand why time-out isn’t a good idea?
TS: Time-out and other punishments fail to address the real issue, which is that children’s brains haven’t built the capacity to regulate their own behavior and emotions consistently.
The part of the brain responsible for emotion regulation takes a very long time to develop (and, to be fair to children, I know plenty of adults who haven’t mastered this skill yet either). Punishment doesn’t build the skills children need to do better the next time.
JS: Are discipline and punishment the same?
TS: Actually, discipline at its core is about teaching. Punishment doesn’t teach a child what to do. Child psychologists are shifting toward this notion of discipline as skill-building rather than reward and punishment, but it’s a slow movement.
JS: I know sometimes punishment does seem to work. My own mother has told me repeatedly that she punished me because nothing else worked.
TS: Yes, sometimes “compliance” increases immediately after a punishment (particularly when children comply out of fear), but that compliance comes at an important cost. Punishment creates more negative behavior, and it shifts a child’s focus to avoiding punishment, often by getting more skilled at not getting caught, rather than making choices based on morals, respect, or love.
Children who are punished are more likely to make poor choices later on when not in the presence of their parents because their behavioral choices have been based on the avoidance of punishment rather than sound moral direction.
Moreover, punishment can isolate children and make them feel badly about themselves, which can itself become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children may begin to behave in ways that give them negative attention simply because they believe that is the best or only way they can get it.
JS: How about logical consequences?
TS: Consequences are generally just “dressed-up” punishments. The term “consequence” has a less negative connotation for some people, but ultimately, if we’re assigning a consequence such as loss of TV because “that’s the only thing he cares about,” then we’re punishing. We’re imposing a consequence not because it’s logical but because we feel that it will “hurt.”
When you parent from a framework primarily built on rewards and consequences, there may come a day when you have removed TV time, the Ipad, the phone, and your child looks at you and says, ‘I don’t care.’ Parents are left endlessly upping the ante or are stuck staring at an empty tool bag.
But real natural consequences do help children learn. A natural consequence occurs when there’s a result from the child’s actions or behavior that was not imposed by the parent. For example, if a child doesn’t wear their mittens, they feel cold. If your child spills something, they should clean it up.
JS: What do you recommend parents do instead of punishing to discipline their children or to help them learn as you say?
TS: Discipline should look like teaching. When I work with parents to shift their parenting lens away from reward and consequences, many parents initially resist because they worry that their children will “get away” with things. On the contrary, discipline involves setting limits, but the method by which you set those limits will look different.
For example, if a child is having difficulty, they may need to be removed from a situation or location for their safety or the safety of others. But rather than sending them to their room or engaging in a back and forth struggle to force them into time out, a parent can use a “time-in” instead. Parents can help the child to a calm safe place and sit with them and support them in regulating their emotions. In a sense, we become an emotion coach, which is a very different role than that of a controlling parent who simply doles out reward or punishment.
Coaching a child to take deep breaths, choose a calming activity, or express their feelings verbally helps a child see that they remain in connection with those who love them and they learn how to manage these feelings in the future.
It’s also very important for children to learn that big emotions will pass like waves, and that they can tolerate them when they come. They gain that confidence by being in safe connection with someone during those times and learning tools to manage those feelings.
Plenty of adults work very hard using all kinds of destructive means to avoid feeling difficult emotions. But children who experience those feelings in loving connection and with support are more likely to manage those feelings successfully in the future.
The other critical tool in positive discipline is problem-solving. Engaging a child in the process of trying to solve the problem rather than simply reprimanding them for their actions once again gives that child tools to use in the future. But without some validation of the feeling that led to the “misbehavior,” a child is likely to feel misunderstood and defensive and further discipline is less likely to be effective.
JS: Some parents say, “My child has disrespected me. I’m angry and feel the child needs to ‘pay,’ like I did as a child. Isn’t that like letting them get away with things, or letting them rule the household?”
TS: One of the hardest parts of parenting is regulating our own emotions. When you parent from a place of calm, you are again more likely to be effective and you continue to model how to regulate emotions because you are doing it yourself. As parents, we cannot expect our child to do what we’re incapable or unwilling to do ourselves.
Respect needs to go in both directions. Parents need to set limits and help a child learn to manage their emotions and behavior. Shaming a child or reacting from a place of emotion rather than wisdom and connection further models the exact behavior you are trying to change in your child.
JS: I’ve heard that instead of punishing, we should reward the behaviors we want from our children. Does this work?
TS: Alfie Kohn’s work promotes the idea that a parent’s love for a child should be unconditional. While parents often think of themselves as loving their child unconditionally, they may be unaware of how their parenting choices may actually be conveying a message of conditional parenting. Both positive and negative judgments put conditions on a child’s worth according to Kohn.
For example, a child may come to believe that they are only worthy of their parents’ love if they achieve academically or behave appropriately. Kohn suggests that even praise such as “good job” may be seen as communicating judgment or worth and a condition that one continue to do a good job to be worthy of that love.
In my clinical practice and my own parenting, I fully believe that children need to feel unconditional love. I speak to parents about how to shift from praise to encouragement. My primary goal in parent coaching is to increase connection. If parents become so concerned about saying the exact “right” words to a child that they became overly analytical and lose authentic connection, then I would much rather they say “good job” while embracing their child.
JS: If there is one thing that parents should take away from your experience and knowledge on punishment, what would it be?
TS: Everything you do as a parent is a step toward connection or a step away from it. If you move toward connection, you will not only be far more effective as a parent, but you will also be parenting a child who wants to respect you and will more likely develop the capacities to do so.
You can find a great list of alternatives to time-out in Aha! Parenting (https://www.ahaparenting.com/blog/10_Ways_To_Guide_Children_Without_Discipline)