Why Punishments Don’t Work
Parent: “Joey, it has been so fun but now it’s time to get out of the bath.”
Joey: “No, I don’t want to.”
Parent: “Please Joey, it’s getting late, we still need to read books and brush teeth, it’s time to get out of the bath.”
Parent: “If you don’t get out of the bath I am taking away your ______ insert here one of the child’s favorite things”
I’ve been reading a book, Raising Great Parents by Doone Estey, Beverly Cathcart-Ross and Martin Nash, M.D. I just finished the chapter: “Stop Flogging a Dead Horse: Why Punishment is Self-Defeating” – this blog post is what I learned from that chapter:
Punishments may work in the short term because we get the child to think if they do something bad then something bad will happen to them. However, this won’t work long term – children will just figure out how to do the behavior without getting caught or they will rebel and come up with a way to punish you back. The focus then becomes the struggle between the parent and child and no progress is made on the real issue at hand (why you originally wanted to punish).
According to the dictionary, in order for something to be a punishment, suffering has to occur (physical, mental or emotional suffering). When one punishes they send the message that they “don’t believe the child can learn unless they lose a privilege or they are hurt in some way.” (p.131)
Today people will use the word consequences, but if consequences aren’t used correctly than they are just “punishments in disguise.” (p.132)
Parents say that in the heated moment of an argument, or when their child isn’t listening to what they say, take the bath example with Joey, they just feel so frustrated they feel they need to take action when the child won’t listen to what they want them to do. Others say that sometimes they punish to satisfy other parents, they want their approval. (If a situation occurs in front of other parents, they feel they need to punish their child because they are watching)
Dr. Nash touches on a deeper reason why parents punish. He says its from an ancient reflex to protect our children. “Parents punish out of love and caring. Parents instinctually want safety and survival for their children.” (Pg.133) He explains that in times of plagues or under dictatorship all energy was spent on basic needs of shelter and food and a mistake could have been fatal. Times have changed and because of the social changes, children have changed too. The world used to be organized in hierarchical lines. Businesses had a boss who was king and if you challenged him you lost your job. They point out that in the 21st century this has changed. “If you have ever gotten a second medical opinion, switched lawyers, questioned a religious practice, or been grateful that schools no longer have the right to spank your children, you know this new structure makes sense.” (Pg 133)
“When parents and children have equal rights to human dignity and respect, punishment is inappropriate. It puts parents in a position of superiority and children of inferiority.” (p.133-134)
I’m sure many of you are thinking, ‘But I’m only looking out for their best interest!! I know what’s best for my child and I know if he doesn’t do his homework then he has to have TV time taken away so that it forces him to do is homework. It’s all for his benefit. I’m not punishing him to HURT him, I’m punishing him so that he can see the right thing to do.’
Let’s dissect that. Ask yourself, do you want your child to grow to be an independent, confident, self-respected human being? If yes, by YOU saying you know what’s best for him, you are stripping him of the right to a) make his own mistakes and learn for himself and b) build confidence to make the right decisions on his own.
Even more so, when we punish, what can actually happen is: (The price of punishment, P. 134)
1) The child is upset and therefore rebels or becomes defiant
2) The child can become passive or feel rejected
3) You are modeling for the child what to do when they are frustrated or upset about something. They can then copy this behavior to their peers or back to you.
4) You are telling your child “obey” and “be afraid” – these are two things you don’t necessarily want your child to grow up to be. Think about when a friend can pressure him to do something, perhaps obedience will be his first instinct.
5) Punishments don’t build a strong parent-child relationship and can push your child away from you.
Punishment comes at a risk (as listed above) so what can you do when you’re in that moment and you want to punish?
They offer some action steps: (p.135)
1) Remember that this reflex to control and therefore punish our kids is from an ancient need to protect our kids – be grateful for these reflexes
2) Ask yourself, is this a life and death situation?
3) If the answer is no, STEP BACK. Let your child make their own choice.
4) If the choice they chose wasn’t the best, (which because of their age and lack of judgment may often be the case) don’t jump in and rescue them from the natural consequence that will occur. Make sure to let your child know you have confidence and faith in them to handle the situation and to deal with the choice they make and if they need you, you are there, BUT let them experience the natural consequence.
So let’s go back to your child that skipped their homework. Is it life or death? No. Of course we want the best for our child and for them to succeed in school, but it’s not about this one homework assignment, it’s about your child learning how to handle his responsibilities and manage his time. Allow the situation to play out – perhaps his teacher will have him stay extra to finish it and he’ll miss out on recess or perhaps he’ll have to stay up the next night working on it and he’ll be tired. There’s nothing wrong with having a conversation about homework issues and offering to help with suggestions of how to map out your time.
With their action steps (asking yourself if it’s life or death and then stepping back and allowing them to make their own choices) we can move away from Punishments and instead use Logical and Natural Consequences.
Your child refuses to put on their gloves. ‘But it’s cold outside! I know what’s best, they need to wear their gloves.’ Is this life or death? No. Let them go outside without their gloves, experience the Natural consequence of having cold hands because they don’t have their gloves on. This lets them see for themselves what is a good decision because after age 2 none of us like to be told what to do.
Your child eats candy before dinner and then is not hungry for dinner. If you see them take the candy and you say, “don’t eat that candy!” Don’t be shocked if they shove the candy in their mouth (been there, experienced that). The underlying theme is the child is saying “you are not the boss of me.” try this exercise: run through your head the things you say to your child. “It’s time to get dressed for school. Hurry, we have to go. Don’t touch that. Careful – that’s too high! Don’t touch your brother. Leave that alone. Eat your breakfast. Eat lunch. Eat dinner. Take a bath” and so on and so on and so on. How annoying does that feel? If you spend one day conscious of it you can see how many of our interactions are “orders.” It’s no surprise that they don’t want to listen. They want to make their own choices. Now, I am not suggesting free reign. Trust me – you can ask anyone who knows me, I have lots of rules 😁
I was actually having that candy issue. My son who is not a good eater as it is got into the habit of snacking (mostly on unhealthy things) and therefore really not eating meals. I realized I needed his buy-in to make any changes. It wasn’t going to work to just say no, because he would just try and sneak it or if he found it he ran to the closet and ate it. We talked to him about how as a family we are all going to try and eat healthier and explained how junk isn’t great for our bodies and our bodies need food etc. He felt like he was a part of the plan – we took him to the grocery store and he would point to something and say, “Is this healthy? Is this junk?” Instead of a power struggle (which we were having at the beginning before I decided to try this approach) we had a joint goal and he feels very good about what he is doing. (At just 3 years old I can clearly see that he feels proud of himself for making a change.) That’s not to say that he doesn’t want junk still or that we don’t give him snacks, it has just become a new level of understanding that junk isn’t good for you daily etc. In addition to the talk, I also helped the situation by removing junk from the regular places which helped him not have to see it and want it.
If I just kept punishing him each time he did that, it would be all about the punishment and we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to discuss the real issue – nutrition and taking care of your body.
So what do I say to little Joey who doesn’t want to get out of the bath? How do we handle that situation?
The book shares an example of a letter written to Drs. Martin and Georgine Nash. The parent describes her 7 year old son as a reasonable, caring and helpful child. However, he doesn’t listen to her when she tells him to do certain things. She asks how she should punish him.
Georgine and Martin don’t reply with punishment ideas as I’m sure you could have guessed, rather they give a great long answer. Off the bat they say this is very common and all parents have struggled with this. (Seems to be on a daily basis for me these days, so this was a perfect time for me to read this.) They say, “when you say ‘he doesn’t listen to me,’ what you actually mean is ‘he does not obey me.’ He can hear you all right, so he is listening; however he does not comply with your wishes.” I loved that because I know in the moment I’m feeling that listen is the right word, but when I take a step back I realize I do mean Obey.
They go on to explain that they understand her concern as a mother and as a responsible parent it makes sense to be concerned for his nutritional needs, (she also mentioned the candy issue) but they point out, “punishing him for disobedience is not an effective way to convey this concern.”
They go on to explain punishment and how it has to hurt and gives parents superiority as I explained their thoughts above. They reiterate that punishment “will likely bring on the negative effects of power. It can nurture resentment, retaliation, and rebellion, or can drive his behavior underground (in a sneaky way.)”
They remind her that if we do use power and punish, it could look like we ‘won’ this round but it will become a waiting game for when the child will do something else to show “you can’t make me” attitude.
They give her tips on how to handle the frustrating situation of her son taking candy before dinner. 1) share information on why she doesn’t want him having candy before dinner. 2) ask for his input – when is it a good idea to have candy? 3) if he already ate the candy, discuss the future – agree on what the logical consequence could be if this situation arises again.
If the issue continues to happen, she may need to remove all the candy from the house until he is willing to respect the agreement.
They conclude their response with, “we don’t want to live in a war zone with our children. We want to have closeness and dual respect, where we respect their right to make judgments but do not lose sight of our own self-respect.” Dual respect is when I respect you, and I respect myself. I will understand that you are entitled to the right to make your own decisions, but I will also have self-respect.
Which takes me back to the very first issue in this post, Joey not wanting to get out of the bath. I need to take a step-back and respect that Joey is enjoying the bath and doesn’t want to get out just because I said so. At the same time, I need to have self-respect and there are other things I need to do and I can’t stand next to the bath all night. I also need to meet the needs of the situation and that is moving on with the bedtime routine and not staying on bath-time forever.
So, is it life and death? No. Can I discuss with him, “ok, 10 more minutes in the bath but that means we’re going to lose 10 minutes from something else. Which do you want to take away from for tonight – books or play time?” Have him be a part of the decision. Let him decide and if in the end he regrets it and did want those extra play time minutes, stay consistent and don’t add it back. If the situation keeps on happening, take time during a different part of the day to problem-solve. You can remind him that he doesn’t end up being happy with his decision and to come up with another option. And after trying all different options together, with him being involved in the decision, if it’s still not working, then you need to meet the needs of the situation at hand and take him out of the bath.
This is a good reminder for myself as lately I feel that everything is a battle and I can see myself doing exactly what I’m reading not to do. When I read about it, it allows me to look at the situation from his perspective. I can totally relate to wanting a say in daily decisions. I understand I’m the parent and he’s the child but that doesn’t take away that he wants to feel he has control over his life. Obviously to an extent. There are many things that are non-negotiable: going to school, going to Doctor appointments and more. But, I will work on giving the choice for the things that are negotiable: clothing for school, color cup at the table, which sink to wash hands in. Even at a very young age they want to be involved in the decision making. Even if it might take longer or make things a little out of order (I like my schedule 🙂 ) Lately my son has been wanting to take off his clothes himself and put them in the laundry basket before the bath. Some nights I want to just do it because it’s faster if I do it, but I see that he enjoys the independence and responsibility and I need to encourage that even if it takes him longer. On nights when timing is an issue, I might start the routine earlier knowing that he needs some extra time to do it himself.
I feel like I am always saying this, but I guess that means it’s true – there is still so much more to say. For example, looking at WHY a child is misbehaving or resisting – that is a major part and really is the first place to start but that is a whole other blog post so stay tuned…
I’ll leave you with this. In Raising Great Parents the authors wrote that they looked at many other parenting books to see what their views were on punishment. Dr. Haim Ginott in Between Parent and Child says, “Punishment is worse than useless […] It only results in a charged atmosphere, an irritated parent and an angry child.”