Why punishments don't work

Why punishments don’t work, and which alternatives do?

You have tried everything: taking away toys, switching off TV with cartoons, cancelling trips to cinema and walking with playmates, yelling, lecturing, isolating your kid – all in vain. Sometimes it seems that kid’s misbehavior is impossible to fix, and your children just refuse listening to you. No matter what you do, your strategy is doomed from the start. But have you ever thought that you just use punishments that don’t work?

Tired of disobedience, desperate parents start applying harsher and harsher measures to harness children. However, this strategy is a typical parenting mistake – kids need specific approaches because their psychology and mind perceive punishments differently. Let’s find out the secret of successful behavior correction.

Why punishments don’t work?

It seems to be the right thing: your kid has made a mistake, and you punish him to prevent it in the future. However, things turn out not as you expected, and the same misbehavior repeats again. Most punishments are simply not effective, and here’s why:

1.Child and parents lack connection and trust. How close are your relationships? Can you discuss everything with your kid? If not, it’s high time to build stronger family bonds and start more trustful communication.

2. Punishment creates illusion of setting things up. The child seems to stop hell around and obey. However, it is forced. It is conditioned by fear of being lectured or beaten again, not by true understanding.  So instead of solving problem, you just postpone reoccurrence of misbehavior.

Punishment produces politeness, not morality

Michael Karson, PhD

3. A child doesn’t see your good intensions. Most often, we come down on our kids in the state of anger, and the act of punishment is aimed at releasing the negative energy, not disciplining. Shouting and blaming aren’t the best way to explain what was done wrong. It only results in uncontrollable weeping and frustration in children.

4.You restrict kid’s freedom instead of giving a lesson. Grounding (‘house arrest’) is a popular form of punishment for both teenagers and smaller kids. But in most cases, it only teaches how to kill time at home and not get caught with the same misbehavior again. You deprive your kid of choice instead of letting him/her take decisions and deal with the consequences.

Lack of freedom is lack of development

5. Punishment doesn’t correspond with kid’s age. Trying to explain something to a toddler is as useless as trying to correct teenager’s mistakes by slapping them. Appropriate punishments for different age groups aren’t the same. 

3 widespread punishments that don’t work

Unfortunately, we all resolve to punishments sooner or later, but some of them are simply unacceptable.

Insulting and humiliating

If your child has done something wrong, you need to explain what exactly. Do not shout and blame your kid by saying “You don’t do homework, you’re so bad!” Instead of personalizing, display facts and mistakes: “Oh, you haven’t done homework, that’s bad – now you’ve got D in mathematics”. Do not use sarcasm and irony – it can worsen the situation.

Threatening that you won’t love your child anymore

There’s nothing worse for a kid than knowing his parents don’t love him. You should never say that you won’t love your little ones if they don’t eat their meal or put away their toys. Express your affection and let your child know that your love is unconditional and endless. Only this approach allows raising a self-confident personality. Instead of threatening, talk to your kid in the following manner: “You’re such a good daughter, how come you’ve done such thing? I’m sorry, but no cartoons today. I hope you will think twice before doing it again”.

Ready to explode with anger? Breathe deeply, calm down and talk to your kid in a quiet manner

Physical abuse

It’s not just inefficient – it’s illegal. Forget about it for good. Psychologists claim that adults apply force simply because kids cannot fight back. Slapping and hitting with a belt are outdated and useless ways of disciplining. It makes children more aggressive, promotes antisocial behavior, and causes mental and psychological problems. Search for adequate alternatives.

This list can be continued, and if you want to find out what else is not appropriate, check out this video:

There’s nothing in common between punishment and discipline. So let’s learn how to apply the second, peaceful and efficient approach.

So, what does work?

If punishments don’t work, how to make kids obey and eliminate unwanted mistakes? The main point of discipline is to make the kid understand the responsibility for his/her actions. To keep control over child’s behavior, you need to teach to act according to social standards and morality.

Foster responsibility for actions, not fear of punishment

Set limits

This way, introduce the standards for what is permitted to do, and what is forbidden. So when you create rules, mind the limits, as well. For instance, you allow your kid to play, but the homework should be made first. Kid can visit the friends, but be home at 9 PM. However, simply setting limits isn’t enough – they should be enforced somehow. The next methods will help with that.

Disciplining means explaining

It doesn’t mean you need to negotiate for hours – just explain the basics of rules. Kids are more likely to digest the lesson when they are aware of certain reasons for the rules. There are a few examples of explanations:

  • “We don’t paint on the wallpapers. They will be dirty, and you will have to clean them.”
  • “I hope you will be home by 11 PM. I am worrying about you and want you to be safe.”
  • “Please, put on the scarf and the cap – we don’t want you to catch cold and suffer from fever.”
  • “Don’t fight with your brother – that causes pain! How would you feel if someone hit you?”

Explanation clarifies the limits and rules, though doesn’t guarantee that they will always be followed. What can help your kid then? Personal experience is the best teacher!

Use the power of meaningful consequences

While harsh punishments don’t work, meaningful consequences appear to be a way more efficient way of correcting kid’s behavior. Followers of Montessori education praise this approach, and it does bring fruitful results when applies correctly.

So, what’s the point of meaningful consequences? Instead of punishing, we give a child some unpleasant experience to cease misbehaving. Here’s how it works:


What NOT to do

What should be done instead

A child refuses to eat the dinner

You shout and force him to eat

You don’t give dinner later, a kid needs to wait for the next day to eat breakfast

A kid writes on the walls

You sent him to his room

You make them clean the walls and give crayons only when they promise to draw in the album

A teenager gets home too late

You organize home arrest

You explain that cannot trust your child until they prove the opposite by getting home at the arranged time

After having to deal with the consequences of their actions, kids start realizing they bear certain responsibility. That promotes taking more thoughtful decisions.

Establish healthy, trustful relationships

Your love and trust have much more authority than fear, forcing, and threatening altogether. In healthy relationships, parents express their expectations in the context of open and calm communication. For the rules to work, a child needs to feel that you impose them out of love and care. Kids who have trustful relationships with their parents understand that their mom and dad express true concern and care, even if this realization comes later.

Do you know why punishments don’t work? Because we think that without them, we cannot retain our authority. However, what children truly need is guidance and the right example – that’s what we, parents, serve for.

How do you stop your kid’s misbehavior? I’m eager to know what else does the trick.

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