Should Parents Punish Their Children?

For many parents, it seems almost instinctive to respond to a child’s uncooperative behavior by imposing (or threatening) a consequence.

In recent sessions, parents have asked, “My twelve year-old daughter is late for school every morning. What consequence should I impose to get her to be ready on time?” or “She speaks to me rudely. I’ve taken away her phone, but she is still disrespectful. What else can I do?” or “My son is addicted to video games and refuses to do his homework. I’ve grounded him, but it hasn’t helped.”

In these common, frustrating situations, we impose punishments (or, euphemistically, “consequences”) because it seems like the natural thing to do. We believe, implicitly, that punishment is a necessary and effective means of teaching good behavior. (It isn’t.) Or, we just don’t know what else to do – and we feel that we have to do something. We don’t want kids to feel that they can ignore us or act with impunity. (In this, of course, we are right.)

It makes sense, or so it seems. This is how they’ll learn. We want kids to stop and think, before they act, “What are the consequences of my actions?” and “Is this the right thing to do?” Recognizing the consequences of our actions, and learning from them, is a hallmark of emotional maturity.

The problem is, most of the time, it doesn’t work. At best, the threat of punishment leads to nagging by parents and a grudging, resentful compliance on the part of children.

Then, when our consequences are not effective, we believe that we have not punished them enough or made the consequences of their misbehavior sufficiently severe. This erroneous belief has caused so much unnecessary conflict and so much damage to our relationships with our children, in so many caring families.

Self-regulation, especially in childhood, is simply not learned well from consequences or punishment. And serious behavior problems – especially problems of motivation and effort – are never solved by punishment. The threat of punishment has its place, but it is a small part of learning discipline and self-control.

In previous posts, I have offered several alternatives and antidotes to the frequent threat of consequences and punishments. Above all, if we want our children to be well-behaved, we should play and work with them often, offer recognition and praise for tasks well done, repair moments of anger and misunderstanding, and take a proactive – not reactive – approach to solving family problems.

Of course, there will be times when consequences are necessary. They will be most effective when they are known to children in advance, delivered without anger, and of short duration, with a chance to start over. (Some egregious violations, for example, inappropriate texting or posting on social media, may require longer punishments.)

Kids may protest and complain, but they get it. Every child I have spoken to in over 30 years, including my own, accepts the idea of punishment. They just believe that their brother or sister is the one who should be punished.

There are many analogies, especially from sports, that almost all children understand. I often remind kids that, in baseball, a player is allowed, with some restrictions, to argue with an umpire. But if he uses profanity or continues to argue after the umpire has given him a warning, he is out of the game. The same rules apply in families. In this spirit, especially for families who struggle with frequent arguing or disrespectful behaviour, I often recommend that parents begin by imposing consequences for the use of profanity when directed toward others.

I make this recommendation not because I am priggish or old-fashioned, but because this rule is easily enforced, teaches several important life lessons, and is a simple and effective way for children and teenagers to practice self-control. Respectful, non-abusive language is a basic principle of reasonable dialogue, a recognition that other people also have feelings, and that we can’t say mean things and then still expect people to do what we ask. (Surprisingly, many teenagers still don’t know this.)

When kids want to talk to us, to protest or complain, we should let them know that we are always willing to listen and they can express whatever feelings and opinions they want. But only when they speak to us calmly and respectfully.

Of course, this rule applies equally to us. Now, as a family, we are engaged in a mutual effort at improved civility and self-control.

The most important thing to understand about consequences is this: when simple rules and consequences are not working, when children refuse to cooperate or continue to misbehave, there is a deeper problem that will not be solved with more rules and more consequences. It will only be solved through dialogue and understanding. We need to take a step back, look for causes (not just symptoms) and enlist children in the problem-solving process. And we should keep in mind a simple truth: our children will be more willing to listen to us if we have first listened to them.