Children & Discipline

7 Reasons Punishments Just Don't Work

Published: 01 Feb 2016
7 Reasons Punishments Just Don't Work

This email arrived in my inbox:

Hi Dr Justin,

I'm a mother of two. My son is five years old and goes to kindergarten three days a week. He has started throwing tantrums almost all the time. Whenever I ask him to do something like pick up the toys or switch the TV off he gets very angry and bashes whatever he has in his hand. Sometimes he goes to his room and shuts the door.

I haven't been successful in finding the right punishment for him. My husband and I have tried beating him. But it hasn't worked. I know it never works. But we get so overwhelmed and lose patience.

We're constantly yelling at him "don't do that", "don't do this". It's unpleasant in the house. I'm clueless of what we should do to discipline him.

Please help.


Dr Justin responds:

At the heart of your question is the issue of discipline. Your son is acting in ways that are challenging. You want him to stop it and do the right thing. Because he is not responding to you, your instinctive response is to get mad at him, threaten him, and eventually hurt him or punish him in some other way.

What you are describing is common and, as you have discovered, also ineffective. Let's look at seven brief evidence-based reasons that beating your child, yelling, and other punishments do not work, and I'll suggest five things you can do to improve your relationship with your son, and his behaviour.

Why don't punishments work?

Hitting your child is bad for your relationship

It undermines trust. It makes your child scared of you. Hitting (and punishing) leaves children feeling that we don't care about them.

Hitting teaches power and coercion

When we hit (and punish) we teach children that if you are bigger and stronger, you can make anyone do anything. Research links hitting (and punishing) with children who become bullies to children smaller than themselves.

Hitting your child reduces influence

We don't like to take instructions from people who we do not trust. Hitting (and punishing) leaves children feeling that we don't understand them so they do not want to listen to us.

Hitting your children ignores the reasons for their behaviour

Is your child hungry, angry, lonely, tired, stressed, sick? Hitting (and punishing) ignores those reasons and places our demands as the only thing that matters

Hitting your children impacts their comprehension of good and bad

Young children who are hit often don't know 'why' something is wrong. They just learn that we, the big powerful people, don't like it. Hitting (and punishing) stop the problem (short-term) but don't teach the reasons why it matters.

Hitting only gives a quick-fix

It is true that hitting (and punishments) can give us a reprieve (briefly) from challenging behaviour. However, research shows that in 74 percent of cases it lasts less than 10 minutes. It's not a lasting change.

Hitting makes kids sneakier

Rather than teaching children to stop doing the wrong thing, hitting (and punishing) simply teaches them to not get caught next time. We might have influence over them while we are present, but when we are not around, the children have no discipline.

This summary is based on decades of scientific evidence, which collectively says that hitting (and punishing) our children when they behave in challenging ways does not lead to good outcomes - except for the very brief quick-fix we might get sometimes. (Of course, then we have to deal with the crying and the bad feelings we get from hitting.)

What should we do instead?

Here are five ideas to help make your family happier and improve your son's behaviour.

Firstly, be in one another's worlds more. The more available you are, the happier he will be. Invite him to help you cook, vacuum, or hang washing. Read books together. Play simple games like tip/tag or kicking a ball or bouncing on the trampoline. Listen to him. Ask him questions.

Secondly, understand things from his perspective. Why might he feel the way he does? Is he jealous of his new sister? Does he feel lonely? Is he anxious or worried that he's always in trouble or not good enough? He will struggle to tell you. Be patient. Listen. Observe.

Thirdly, don't punish. Teach. When a child can't read, we teach. When a child can't swim, we teach. When a child can't tie his laces, we teach. When a child can't behave in ways we approve of we ... punish. But what we need to do is teach. With love. Discipline means teaching, guiding, and instructing. We don't do that by hitting (or punishing). We do that by talking and problem-solving.

Fourthly, problem-solve. Scholars have discovered that one of the best ways to discipline effectively is to wait until children are calm, and then to invite them to problem-solve around the issue. Ask your son, "Because of this problem, what do you think we should do?" Get his ideas on how he can stop hurting, being angry, or whatever the issue is.

Fifthly, remember he's just a child. Once children get to around four or five, we start to expect big things of them. Unfortunately, we forget that they're still so little. While they can be capable of awesomeness, they're still learning the ropes. Give him time. He'll grow up great if he receives kindness, compassion, understanding, and love.

Making these five changes will not make him a perfect child, and it will not make you a perfect parent. But it can and will make him feel more loved, increase his feelings of worth, improve his behaviour, and make your family happier.


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