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When to use punishment in parenting: things to know

When to use punishment in parenting is a hot topic. It’s also pretty commonly used in parenting, and it doesn’t necessarily deserve the bad rap it gets. Punishment, from a behavioral perspective, is just a method of decreasing behavior and helps us to learn what things are not good for us. A burn from the stove would punish the behavior of touching the hot stove. That kind of learning is good and the existence of punishment is important as a natural behavioral structure.

But when to use punishment in parenting?

As a parenting tool, punishment is trickier. It has drawbacks, sometimes big drawbacks, and it can easily sabotage efforts that are meant to be successful. That’s not to say that you should never use punishment in parenting, but you need to know how to use it effectively—and you need to know where the punishment pitfalls are so you can avoid them.

Punishment pitfalls

For punishment to work, reinforcement has to exist. If you are punishing one type of behavior, you must make sure that rewards exist for other kinds of behavior and make sure that you are finding ways to reward the kind of behavior you want to see.

The consistency and immediacy of punishment really matter. Effective punishment must be delivered immediately, must be delivered in any setting, and must be delivered for every instance of behavior.

So, if you are going to carefully choose punishment and you want it to be effective, you are going to have to be willing to do it every time for every (chosen) misbehavior and at the time that it occurs. That means in the middle of Target. Or church. Or during a birthday party. Or when you are sick. If you aren’t willing to do it consistently in any place at any time, you should choose something other than punishment.

When to use punishment in parenting: start with the highest intensity. You can’t gradually increase the intensity of punishment and expect it to work. In fact, you mess up everything if you punish halfway. A little bit of punishment teaches people to decide when it’s worth it to break the rules. Think of traffic tickets. If speeding costs you $5, you would be very unlikely to care if you got caught speeding and will try to get away with speeding more often. If speeding costs you $1000, you are much less likely to want to speed. The intensity has to be high enough to be uncomfortable enough that it completely eliminates behavior, rather than testing behavior.

You can’t expect punishment to fix future problems. Punishment decreases behavior, or deconstructs behavior, which means that it does not teach the right kind of behavior. Punishment just tells kids what NOT to do. You need another strategy to teach kids what TO do. Anything that involves punishment must also have a plan to teach the skills that are missing to replace the bad behavior with better behavior.

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When to use punishment in parenting to the most affect...and how to go about it with positivity.

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