The Problems with Punishment

By Abby BordnerPunishment

I like to ask parents, “What are your long term goals for your children? If they were suddenly adults, what qualities would you like them to have?”

I get answers like:

  • Happy and  joyful
  • Kind and thoughtful
  • Responsible
  • Passionate about their beliefs
  • Healthy relationships
  • Respectful
  • Loving and gentle
  • Strong, brave and determined
  • Spiritually fulfilled
  • Compassionate
  • Good self esteem
  • Optimistic

That sounds like a pretty wonderful adult, right!? The next question I ask is, “What are you doing in your day to day interactions with your children that support these long term goals?” That one isn’t so easy to answer. In fact, many parents say their day to day interactions look more like: parent shouting orders, kids dawdling, parent getting mad, punishment, kids upset. Repeat.

Let’s talk about punishment. Punishment is intentionally making your child suffer as a result of behavior that isn’t pleasing to you. The dictionary definition is: to subject to pain, loss or confinement as a penalty for some offense, transgression or fault. When I talk about “authoritarian” style of parenting, it includes controlling children with fear, intimidation, power, threats and physical or emotional abuse.

Here are some of the problems with punishment. It:

  • Is a controlling behavior with the main goal of compliance. Was “compliant” on your list of long term goals for our children?
  • Is fundamentally disrespectful to children. It communicates a conditional connection with your children. Your behavior is what makes me love you.
  • Erodes your relationship with children. You may get short term compliance, but if your kids learn to resent and avoid you, is it worth it?
  • Distracts kids from the issue. The main goal for your children becomes avoiding the punishment.
  • Puts powerlessness in their face in that moment. It requires parents to use our force over children and leaves them feeling resentful, angry and lonely.
  • Kids tend to avoid authority in order to get away with whatever they want.

Do you think if you master the task of controlling your kid’s behavior, you are supporting the list of qualities you’d like them to have?

“The more you use power to control your children, the less influence you have over them.”
-Alfie Kohn

Studies show that kids severely punished at home are more likely to be aggressive, depressed, labelled as “a problem” in other settings and generally act out of control more often.

Parents state they use punishment for the following reasons:

  • If I don’t, my kids won’t listen to anything I say.
  • It’s easier to get something done.
  • It prepares them for the “real world”.
  • It gets their attention.
  • Because it was done to me and I turned out ok.
  • Because I love them.

Here are 10 alternatives:

  1. Consider yourself a teacher to your child. You are the guide who directs and shows them their place in your family, in your extended family and your community. You are their ally.
  2. Model respectful communication. Be authentic when talking and listening to your child. Apologize when needed.
  3. Instead of asking yourself, “How do I get my kids to do what I want them to do?” ask yourself, “What does my child need right now and how can I meet those needs?”
  4. Honor your child’s feelings. Listen with full attention when they’re upset. Take your child seriously.
  5. Put the relationship first. Choose connection with your child instead of alienation or shame.
  6. Love unconditionally. Love WHO they are, not what they do. Love them, even when their behavior is unlovable.
  7. Assume the best of your child. Be his/her #1 fan. State your expectations and show your child how to make amends.
  8. Don’t be rigid, be flexible. Yes, there is a need for consistency, but don’t be consistently unpleasant.
  9. Let kids decide as much as possible. It creates independent thinkers.
  10. Express your feelings, without attaching character.

What are your thoughts on punishment?

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Leave A Reply (5 comments so far)

  1. Leah Davies
    3 years ago

    You nailed my thoughts on punishment. Excellent post!

  2. Bob Myers
    3 years ago

    Hi Abby. I agree with you entirely. However, I will add a few words. I think many parents become confused about the lack of a clear distinction between punishment and consequences, mainly because so many of the so-called consequences recommended by various parenting theories are really punishments. In my book, Travelling the Road of Peace and Happiness, I also define punishment as ‘imposed suffering of some kind’, with the optimum word being ‘imposed’. Regardless of using prefixes such as logical and so on, an imposed adverse ‘consequence’ is a punishment in disguise and a beneficial imposed ‘consequence’ is a reward. Many parents lose faith in the use of consequences when they get into the same power struggles as when they use punishments and rewards. To cut a long story short, I suggest to parents that they ‘take restorative action’, which is very similar to what you advise parents to do. Thank you for an excellent post.

    • Abby Bordner
      3 years ago

      Thanks, Bob. Your comment is right on! I agree many of the consequences/ punishment result in the same cost to the relationship. In Relationship Based Parenting, I advocate meeting the needs of the relationship first, then what you call “take restorative action”. I like it! I’m looking forward to checking out your book. Take care!

  3. Diana
    3 years ago

    Great Post Abby! Thank you for sharing! My little sunshine is 4 years old and she is emotionally mature for her age, but there are times of course when she tests her limits. When she turned 2, is when began practicing mindfulness, I do not believe in punishment, I believe in connecting with our little ones especially when they act out, that is when they need our connection the most. (This does not mean, that there is no discipline, I call it Guidance). But Imagine as an adult, you’re having a melt-down, a tantrum (which we all get) and its the worst day of your life someone close to you, punishes you and they alienate you. We as adults would feel awful, imagine how a child feels.
    Through mindfulness, I have realized that when she has been defiant or not like herself, its coming from somewhere else, something is affecting her in a negative way. Instead of alienating her, I talk to her and tell her that I love her but that her behavior is not acceptable. I practice remaining calm and not raising my voice, so she understands that I care and want to know what is going on. I give her some time on her own. In most cases, she comes to me in a few minutes and she apologizes and expresses why she did what she did. And we discuss what she can do next time. For me, learning how to be mindful, has made me more conscious of how I guide my daughter. Thank you again Abby, love your post!

    • Abby Bordner
      3 years ago

      Thanks, Diana! It sounds like practicing mindfulness makes you a more patient mom and creates a real sense of security and connection for your daughter. Good work!