Should I punish my child?

The concept of punishment seems so simple to parents (Remove her ipad for a week!  Send him to his room for the night!  No way is she going to that birthday party!) but, in reality, it is one of the most misunderstood fundamentals of behavior change that I see in my practice.  One of the most frequent questions I am asked is:  Should I punish my child?  Before we decide whether or not punishment is a good or not-so-good idea, however, let’s start with clarifying exactly what punishment is and isn’t.  More often than not, punishment is thought of as doing something unpleasant to a child after she engages in a less than desirable behavior because “we will show her who’s boss!” and “she is going to have to learn the hard way!”  If tough love is how we believe our children will learn, well I suppose we are right. The question is, however, what exactly will they learn? This is the single most important question we have to ask ourselves before we dive headlong into “punisher” mode.

How do we properly define punishment?

In behavioral science, punishment is defined as any consequence that is delivered immediately following a behavior that decreases the likelihood that the particular behavior will occur again.  Positive Punishment is when we deliver a negative consequence after the behavior (Jimmy talks out in class and his teacher delivers a reprimand) while Negative Punishment involves the removal of a desired item or activity (Kim swears at her mother about homework and mom removes her phone for the rest of the day).  Unlike positive reinforcement which is always encouraged by Behavior Analysts, punishment procedures are discouraged (and reserved for unsafe or self-injurious behaviors).  If you’re wondering why, you’re not alone.  Punishments can and DO work at times to stop a behavior “in its tracks”.  If I grab my child’s ipad while she’s mouthing off and refuse to give it back, I can certainly abate that behavior…in the moment.  Will all kids cease their verbal rant upon removal of a device?  Definitely not!  However, many will because the desire to get their device back wins out.  The challenge is that all we have successfully accomplished in this scenario is temporarily stopping the pain of the problem behavior.  No more mouthing off!  For now…

Is punishment effective?

The reason punishments are not very effective (no matter how tempting they are in the moment) is because they do not in any way, shape or form address the underlying skill deficits contributing to the problem behavior (why exactly is Jimmy talking out during class) nor do they teach and reinforce appropriate replacement behaviors (what should Jimmy be doing instead?) which really is our ultimate job as parents.  So, when we dole out punishments such as “sit in that chair in the corner until I say so…or else”, we do teach our kids things such as to fear us, avoid us and that we are an unsafe place and we also erode our relationship with them, doing nothing to further our communication.  Challenging behavior is frustrating and exhausting, make no mistake that all parents dealing with problem behavior know this, but at it’s core, it is also the most potent opportunity we have to teach our children, learn from our children and strengthen the relationship we have with them.  If we see the behavior simply as a chance to show our kids who is the boss with a punishing approach, we miss endless opportunities to teach and shape new behavior which is really what discipline is all about.


  1. Punishments are tempting because they are largely misunderstood.  The gains from using punishments are temporary at best.
  2. Punishments do not take into consideration skill deficits underlying problem behavior or the “why” of behavior.  In order to shape behavior we must know why our child is engaging in the behavior and what lagging skills are contributing to it.
  3. Discipline is all about teaching and reinforcing appropriate new behaviors.  This is how we build strong relationships with our children.  Punishments tend to erode connections and build fear which is the last thing we want if we hope to build a trusting relationship with our child.