The Negative Consequences of Punishment

Wikipedia defines punishment as “the authoritative imposition of something negative or unpleasant on a person in response to behavior deemed wrong by an individual or group. ” The dictionary says it’s “a penalty imposed on somebody for doing something wrong.” The common idea is that punishment is forced pain on someone who did something wrong by someone else. Punishment requires a punisher – someone who does the punishing. This is where the problem comes in. Punishment comes across as unloving to a child. Parents teach kids what they should and should not do so that they choose to do the right things. This results in avoiding hardship and pain in the future. When adults punish kids, they do something they don’t want their kids doing when they did something wrong. Yes, the intention and goal is right and good, but a punishment mindset does more damage than good in the long run – especially to their relationships.

Think of the last time you were punished for something you did…what comes to mind? How did it make you feel about the punisher? What did you really learn from the punishment? For me it was being spanked by my parents. There was a feeling coming from them that they “hurt” me because I did something wrong. I was confused and angry that they would intentionally do something painful and scary to me for any reason. I thought they loved me and cared for me. They did talk with me, explain the situation, and helped me learn from my mistakes (which did help me change my behavior). But I viewed the negative event as an attack in response to what I did and it poisoned our relationship. They loved me, but in my mind, that was not communicated to me. I learned when I make a mistake, they are going to hurt me (like what they tell me not to do) so I don’t do something negative thing to others. This brought a harmful wedge into my relationship with my parents that to this day I wish was not there. I never felt that they were working with me on my team for what was best for me. Punishment may change the behavior (as it did for me) but but it also changed the foundation of our relationship.

I also became afraid of doing things because I was afraid of what my parents would do to me if it was considered wrong by them. It created a distorted view of authority: “they” are going to “get” me if I do something wrong regardless of my motive. This prevented me from making many decisions on my own, becoming dependent on my parents for all decisions. I avoided taking any risks that were necessary for healthy growth and development. I was also immobilized by fear of adults (punishments) which also affected my view of God. Yes, I avoided doing the things I knew were wrong, but because I didn’t know the entire list of everything that could be considered wrong (which I would be punished for doing even if I didn’t do it on purpose) I avoided doing things I should have done.

Another side effect of relying on punishment is if you take away the punisher, then you take away the motivation to do the right thing. Outside enforcement of behavior is only effective when the enforcer is around. Take the punisher away from someone who does not have integrity and is not self-disciplined, then in their minds anything is ok. This is a major reason so many of today’s adults do things they shouldn’t. We want our kids equipped in making good choices. They need internal motivation; positive reasons why they are acting the way they do on their own.

We need to drop the idea of punishment from our words, thoughts, and actions! But, before you think that I am arguing for total lack of accountability and discipline, there is a solution: Consequences and responsibility. Reality is based on cause and effect. Everything that happens in the universe is the result of something else happening. There are natural physical laws that govern consequences: You drop a ball and it falls to the ground. And there are non-physical or relational laws that have consequences: You say something rude and others dislike you. And there are predetermined (logical) laws that tell you what happens if someone makes bad choices: You kill someone you go to jail. These laws/rules motivate us towards accountability and taking responsibility for our actions. It is vital that children learn that behavioral consequences are everywhere.

Every choice has a consequence (could be good or bad, positive or negative). A big part of maturity is knowing how your thoughts and action will impact you and other’s lives before you act on them. I tell our girls “In our home, you can do whatever you want…as long as you are OK with the consequences.” So how do we set this up to work with our kids?

First, it’s important that everyone knows the rules. Make sure you communicate expectations . This is teaching them in advance. You should never give consequences for actions that were not clearly understood as wrong. The first time a negative behavior shows up is the perfect time for explanation and teaching. Always explain why the behavior is expected so they have the information necessary to process and internalize the motivation for that action so they can refer to it in the future. “Because I said so” is never a good reason. It is too subjective, not practical, doesn’t teach, and is powerless if you are absent or they don’t trust you.

Next, lay out the correlated consequences before they need enforced. Allow Natural consequences to take their course as much as possible. When kids are mean to their peers, they will have less friends wanting to play with them. If they don’t do their homework, they will get a low grade in class. Use Logical consequences when necessary, but make sure that they are directly related to the behavior that it is addressing. If they are getting a bad grade in class, then they need extra study time. Having them do an extra 30 minutes of school work to make up for missed assignments would be logical and motivate them for improving their grades. Another example, if a child pushed another person I would say that as she needs practice controlling herself. Sitting quietly in a chair would give her the opportunity to practice self-control. This can be used for many behaviors for younger children. (See Love & Logic curriculum for more details on this concept.)

Finally, require them to clean up their mess. Whatever they did needs to be fixed and made up for and any relationships that may have been damaged need to be restored. Keep your connection strong with them as they learn how to make things right. This is more than just an apology and is very specific to each situation. The quesiton that needs answered is “What does each person effected by the incident need to get things back to the way it was?”

Life lessons are best learned through the choices you make and actions you take. By setting up an objective standard of rules and consequences (if you do action X…then expect consequence Y) you set them and you up for success. The secret weapon that shows up when you change from punishment to consequences is it takes you as punisher out of the equation. They now have someone on their team helping guide them through the consequences. Instead, you become the coach, helper, guide, comforter, encourager that comes alongside them while they experience real-life learning through the results of their choices. Instead of feeling as though someone is against them, they know that they adult is working with them for their benefit to become a better person. Sure, they may not always understand this – but there are no underlying messages sent that might damage the relationship. And they will appreciate it when they are older.

This also empowers and places responsibility on the individual making the choices. It takes away the power of the “it’s not my fault” excuse. They can’t blame you for the negative result of their choice. They can’t be the hurting victim with this system. They are in control of everything that happens to them because they know what to expect and choose their own actions. This empowers them and causes growth in their ability to respond (response-able). The goal is motivating them in changing their own behavior.

When it comes to consequences, use the rule of least interference: The consequences should be enough to motivate change, but not overwhelm them or punish them. Never, ever use guilt, shame, or disrespect as tools for motivating change. Negative motivation never brings about lasting positive changes. Remember, you are not the punisher – you are their loving coach as they experience the consequences of their own choices. Approach the situation thinking about your motivation: you care about them (love)…you are sad with them that they made a poor choice (empathy)…you believe in them and know they can make it through the consequences (encourage them) …and you are here for them if they want to talk (support them). Also, use questions to get them to think about what they did, why it was not acceptable, how it affects others, and what they can do next time. Avoid lecturing at all costs. Uninvited lectures are never helpful because they are not listening. Wait until they ask for your advice.

Think of it this way…Your child’s poor choice (negative behavior) is an opportunity to partner with them in learning about life (natural consequences), teach them how to mature, and (when necessary) help motivate and change their unacceptable behavior. So, get rid of punishment. Even though what we call punishment and consequences could be the exact same actions taken: your attitude, vocabulary, and the role you take impacts every situation for good or bad. Are you bringing the pain as the punisher or are you coming alongside kids encouraging and motivating them to become the better person you know they can be?

One thought on “The Negative Consequences of Punishment

  1. Excellent post and you are right on. I think punishing is a natural instinct when people do things we don’t like, but it hurts the relationship and we need the relationship if we are going internalize things for the children.


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