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Punishment misses the mark

By Beth Macgregor - posted Thursday, 15 February 2001

Children rely on their parents and other adult caregivers to help them learn about the world. Most parents would agree that their role is to help children be happy and productive members of society, and that children need discipline to achieve this.

Discipline is generally seen as something which is done to children to ensure that they behave well. This often involves punishment, and the words are used interchangeably: physical punishment, for example, is considered by many to be a form of discipline. Physical punishment can include, but is not limited to, smacking, hitting with implements, punching, pinching and kicking. Adults also punish children by shouting, telling them off, sending them to their room, and withdrawing privileges. Punishment differs from setting boundaries because it is inflicted as a penalty for misbehaviour with the intention of shaming a child. For example one parent may not let a child watch television as a punishment for not doing homework. Another parent may set boundaries by explaining to a child that she is able to watch television once she has finished her homework: the intention is to guide, rather than shame, the child.

It is widely believed that children deserve punishment when they behave poorly. It is assumed that punishment is effective in shaping children’s behaviours, and that the aim of discipline is to shape children’s behaviours. I believe that punishment is generally ineffective in shaping children’s behaviours, and that behaviour modification ought not to be discipline’s primary goal.


Punishment is ineffective in shaping children’s behaviour for many reasons. Children, like adults, experience a range of feelings, including happiness, joy, sadness, anger, anxiety, exuberance, illness, tiredness, curiosity, and boredom. Unlike adults, children often can’t say how they feel. Consequently, children often communicate with their behaviour. For example, a two-year old who is fearful of losing his parents’ affections may hit a newborn sibling, or a seven-year old who is upset about a fight with her best friend may be rude to her parents. Punishing children for misdeeds does nothing to address the underlying cause of the behaviour.

Another reason for punishment’s failure is that it relies on parents deciding what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. Unfortunately parents are not always rational and just. For example a child may be punished for not eating a meal when she is simply not hungry, or for crying when she is tired and bored. Many parents expect their children to obey them unquestioningly, and punish their children for not doing so. This leaves their children no negotiating power. Children who are consistently punished for not complying with parental requests have limited opportunity to develop communication and critical thinking skills, and are left with an enduring sense of powerlessness.

Parents often take out their anger and frustration on children by punishing them. This can have many negative consequences, including contributing to a child’s sense of powerlessness, anger and low self-worth. Furthermore, parents often hold unrealistic expectations of children. They may, for example, expect a ten month old not to play with buttons on a video, a two year old to ‘sit still’ (why are adults so pre-occupied with children sitting still?), or a five year old to always tell the truth. Punishing children for normal behaviour is fruitless at best, and damaging at worst.

Children do not learn to develop empathy for others through punishment. If a child is smacked for taking another child’s toys, for example, she is preoccupied with the pain and humiliation of the punishment – not the effect of her actions on the other child. Likewise, if a child is sent to her room for hitting a sibling, the opportunity to teach the child negotiation and communication skills is lost. Consequently children may learn to avoid repeating behaviours in the presence of the punishing adult, but they do not learn about the effects of their behaviours on others, or how to get along with others. Consequently, punishment teaches children to rely on external sanction for their behaviours, not self-regulation. This is poor preparation for adulthood, where self-regulation is necessary for mature and healthy relationships.

Parents who rely on punishment assume that children will behave poorly without adult sanction. Children often know what is expected of them, and believing that children will behave poorly can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example a child may pick up that his parents believe he is ‘naughty’, and may act accordingly.

Punishment can be painful and humiliating for children, and can provoke feelings of rage and injustice. Imagine how you would feel if your partner slapped you on the face for not sitting quietly, or for crossing the road at a dangerous corner. Most children feel just as humiliated, angry, ashamed and powerless. Children who feel angry and/or bad about themselves may attempt to regain their power by misbehaving. For example a child who has been made to feel ashamed for poor school results may tease and pick a fight with a younger sibling. Children who are used to being punished may misbehave as a way of gaining the attention of their parents. Even though punishment is negative attention, for many children it is preferable to minimal, or no, positive attention.


Of course there may be times when punishment can modify behaviour. For instance children may stay in bed at night from fear of being punished for getting up. It must be asked however: is good behaviour a valid measure of discipline’s success? How does it benefit a child to behave well due to fear of punishment? Instead of punishment, wouldn’t children benefit from discipline which helps them make mature choices; to self-regulate their emotions and behaviours; to treat people and the world with respect as a natural consequence of empathy; to be self-expressed and fulfilled? Isn’t this more desirable than compliance and ‘good’ behaviour from fear of punishment?

How do children learn to develop these attributes? Surprisingly, the field of adult education may help to answer this question. Adult learning principles suggest that adults should have a say in how they learn; that learning should be fun and that different learning tasks suit different learners. Adult educators set tasks which are appropriate to learners’ needs – for example a student who is new to Italian is expected to learn only basic vocabulary, and not complex verbs. Adult educators make learning fun and interesting, making use of games and music for example. In short, they create the right conditions for learning.

Why are these called adult learning principles? Children, like adults, need the right conditions for learning: it’s just that they’re learning different things. Children want to learn how to live co-operatively and harmoniously with others. When parents assume this, children respond accordingly. People from many cultures, for example Native Americans, recognise that children are naturally co-operative, and children in this culture are gently and kindly guided to an understanding of what is expected of them. Like adults, children respond to environments where they are respected, have fun and are allowed to develop at their own pace. They need to be supported to behave well, not punished for misbehaving.

Children who are treated with warmth and respect from an early age develop trusting relationships with their parents, and are more co-operative as a result. This is not to say that there is no place for anger and frustration in these relationships, but that parents are respectful of their children. A parent may apologise and make up to a child after an argument, for example, or remove herself from the room if she feels that she is unable to contain her anger. No one wins in punitive relationships: parents and children alike feel frustrated, angry and unhappy. A parent-child relationship which is warm and based on mutual respect is the cornerstone of true discipline.

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About the Author

Beth Macgregor is an Intern Psychologist and has worked in the field of child protection and child welfare since 1994. She wants the world to be a place where all children are valued, loved and respected.

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