Why Punishing Our Children Leads To Behavioural Issues

Punishments are common place in Western parenting, from time-outs to loss of privileges, the different methods are widely varying amongst the families who use them.

On one end of the scale we have those who punish harshly and physically, and then there are those parents who prefer “gentler” options such as the naughty step or time-outs.

Though the second group may feel they have little in common with the first, there remains a united result.

The truth is that punishments (of ANY kind) just do not work.

The trouble is that for the parent who is using these techniques, they may not agree. Why? Because after they hand out a smack or a time-out, they see an instant result. The child appears sorry, their behaviour may improve and it seems that they have “learned their lesson.”

I suppose I should say not that punishments don’t work – they do in some cases in the very short term – but when looking at the overall picture, they absolutely do not. Parents who punish never seem to do it just once do they? You never hear a mother say “Oh I took away her favourite book when she was six and she’s never misbehaved since!”

It is proof in itself they don’t work, simply by the sheer volume of times a parent will have to repeat a punishment to see lasting results. I have seen parents who give “time-out” three or four times in the same morning, or making the same unheard threats of loosing their swimming trip over and over again. I have seen children removed from playing, or sent to the “naughty step” only to repeat the behaviour just moments later.

Punishments teach our children lessons, as all our actions do. Unfortunately for both sides, these lessons are not the ones we want our children to learn:

  • We are not on their side.
  • We can exert our will over theirs.
  • They should lie or hide their natural impulses in order to avoid being punished.
  • They are unable to resist their natural impulses, which always seem to lead to punishment, so they must be somehow “bad” as a person.
  • This behaviour gets the undivided attention of a parent. Negative attention is better than no attention.
  • Mum/Dad isn’t fair.
  • Mum/Dad doesn’t listen.
  • Mum/Dad doesn’t like me.

Punishing leads to rebellion. We are all naturally drawn to freedom and autonomy, yet we so frequently steal the freewill of our children, coercing, forcing, humiliating and destroying their trust in us.

Yet the ironic thing is that without punishments, without artificial consequences, those “well behaved” respectful children you long for will emerge.

Children are naturally “good” people. They want to imitate their elders and please us too. By expecting the best of them, they will deliver in bucket-loads. But so often we expect higher standards from them than we are prepared to give ourselves.

Just this weekend I was offering around a tub of mango to my family. I offered it to my Mother in law first.

“No,” she said.

I then offered it to my three year old nephew.

“No,” he smiled.

Without missing a beat she turned to him and chidingly corrected him – “No thank you.”

When I pointed out to her that she hadn’t said thank you herself, she was surprised. She hadn’t realised that she hadn’t said the words.

Our children can only be as “good” as we are ourselves.

Punishments don’t work, but that doesn’t mean our parenting toolbox is empty. Fill it with connection, trust, communication and respect instead, and watch as those behavioural issues melt away into nothingness.


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15 thoughts on “Why Punishing Our Children Leads To Behavioural Issues”

  1. Great article, it s funny, I was feeling a bit down tonight after kind of punishing my 2.5 year old after she dropped on purpose a box of blackberries and then squashed them, I never punish her and it didn t feel right doing it, I just feel less patient in the evenings. I do believe that respect and being connected is the best way, if they misbehave, something is bothering them, they are naturally good people. Again, very good article thank you.

  2. I am interested in your thoughts here, but I don’t understand how to keep order without any type of discipline? How do I keep my son from kicking the dog in the head without sending him to time out once he’s done it two or three times?

    I would just like some elaboration please.

    1. Have a look at the category tab under gentle discipline, there are several examples there and I am always adding more.

      Boundaries ARE important and I do not advocate for permissive parenting, but it is absolutely possible to have boundaries without the need for using punishments.

      In your specific example I would offer a consistent reaction to his action. When he attempts to hurt the dog I would explain that “We do not hurt others and we need to look after him” teaching him about what the dog might be feeling at that moment. If he continued I would pick him up and remove him from the situation, explaining to him that we don’t hurt the dog and I had to take you away from him as he didn’t like being kicked. In this case I would do a time in. Stay with him and try and identify what need it is that is creating this aggressive behaviour. Is it simple experimentation, or is it a deeper anger? When you find the cause it is likely the behaviour will fade away.

      The trouble with punishments is that they don’t fix the underlying issue, they just treat the visible symptoms (eg. hitting.)

  3. Sometimes even the best parents need to intervene though! And that may be seen by the child as punishment, whether it is intended as such or not.

    For example : Hubs has been teaching Monkey to spit water in the shower. It’s hilarious. But when he now intentionally spits milk on the carpet, I take the milk away because I don’t want to clean up the mess! I explain that its fine to spit, but he needs to do it in the shower, and he understands that – but do you consider the initial removing of his cup of milk a punishment?

    1. Instilling boundaries is an integral part of our role and it is important that our children can learn to be social. The situation you have described illustrates more of a consequence than a punishment. My son went through a fascination with spitting a few months ago and we had a similar boundary – He could spit in the bathroom or in the garden, but not in the rest of the house.

      When he would start spitting in the house I would explain to him that this was not OK and it would not be nice for people to stand in it. He had a strong need to explore this new found skill so I always reminded him that it was OK for him to go to one of the appropriate spots while he was spitting. If he didn’t go I would either distract him by changing up what we were doing, eg. going to put something in the kitchen and asking for his help, or would pick him up and go with him to the garden where he was free to spit, explaining once more why we don’t spit in the house.

      From his perspective, I was still on his side, I was not trying to force him to stop doing something he had a strong urge to do, but I was still instilling the boundary and guiding him to be respectful of his home and his family.

      I hope that helps.

  4. I have to agree that punishment does nothing to help children develop. I believe that parents are teaching children to be adults. That said, how you treat then in turn becomes how they develop. I believe in using discipline as a learning tool. Thank you this amazing article! I’ll definitely be sharing.

  5. Punishments, jail, fines etc don’t even work for adults, why would they work for kids? Although I believe this completely, I’m still at a loss with my ever argumentative, constant boundary pusher, my little boy is 3 and I find myself arguing the point with him constantly until I end up shouting. Then I end up shouting that I hate it when I shout. Then he says “Stop shouting mum.” Then I end up stomping off defeated by a 3 year old and feeling like an idiot. And still, I didn’t get my point across, all I achieved was some more shouting. Which often is the thing I’m trying to stop him from doing…. sigh. This parenting gig is not as easy as some people make it look. I’m always looking for practical “to do” “to say” things to go with the basic ideology of gentle parenting. Any specific examples of situations and reactions from both kids and parents sides would be really welcomed. Thanks 🙂

  6. Great post! I only have a small number of things I actually use Time Outs for, like hitting or throwing a tantrum that is physically dangerous. Usually, I sit with my daughter for her time out, but, really, I just use it as a way for her to collect her thoughts and calm down. I set the time for a minute per year, so right now, my daughter’s at two minutes. That’s as long as it takes for her to calm down, catch her breath and be able to handle whatever is stressing her out with a little more patience and reason.

    I’m hoping it teaches my daughter to walk away from stressful situations just to get a little perspective. I don’t look at it as a punishment, really.

    Thanks again for the article!

    1. Hi Emily, Thank you for your comment. I actually have a whole chapter on the use of time out in my book, as although at first glance it may not seem like a punishment, they actually have far more serious effects on our children than we would first assume. A far more effective strategy is to use a time in. This would provide the same opportunity for her to calm herself, but you would stay with her and help her to work through her feelings. Remember, to a toddler, these emotions are new and often frightening, and it can make a huge difference to have a supportive person by their side as they work through them. Here’s a link to an article by Dr. Laura Markham of Aha Parenting.com which discusses time out as a punishment. http://www.ahaparenting.com/_blog/Parenting_Blog/post/Timeouts_Good,_Bad,_or_Unnecessary/
      I also recommend the work of Alfie Kohn. Thanks again for sharing your experiences!

  7. It is the best time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy.
    I’ve read this post and if I could I wish to suggest you some interesting things
    or advice. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article.
    I wish to read even more things about it!

  8. For the longest time I tghuhot getting whuppens was the only way to raise children, one of those that just how it is things. One of the turning points for me was a scene in the movie Antwone Fisher. In this scene Denzel gave Antwone a book that talked about the slave origins of corporal punishment. Even though I never read said book that little moment helped me to imagine other possibilities.I was whupped pretty bad as a kid and I worry about being that way with my daughter. I have decided to stick with the time-outs and make spanking a VERY last resort. This may sound corny, but maybe I am helping break a cycle of violence in our community-T

  9. I wholeheartedly agree. And I also would like to add the realm of physical punishment and it’s effect on and message to children that their bodies are open and deserving to be violated. A “slap in the face” may be a quick solution to “solve” a problem in the now but this very act leaves a deep, bleeding wound in the soul of that child, something sometimes no time will heal… Ever. Physical transgression can be equally painful emotionally, just as verbal punishment is as well.

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