The Parenting Code Blog

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Child Punishment: What Every Parent Needs to Know

The term “child punishment” sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Sure, we could soften the terminology and call it child consequences, but what we’re really talking about is not punishment, it’s discipline. I say this because your goal is to alter the child’s behaviour.

Purpose of Child Punishment

The idea of punishing a child is simply a means to an end, in the eyes of the parent. You want proper behaviour. You’re not getting it. So you implement a punishment hoping your child will learn how to avoid the same consequence next time.

Before we dive deeper into the topic of punishment and consequences, let’s first come to an understanding about child motivation. In fact, let’s come to an understanding about human motivation since what I’m going to explain applies to everyone, not just kids. 

People are motivated by pain and pleasure. They want to seek out pleasure, and they want to avoid pain. As a parent, you need to think about this carefully. Your child is behaving in a way that they choose willingly. They choose the behavior to get something positive, or to avoid something negative. Before you implement any behavioral change strategy be sure that you have a solid idea about what it is the child wants. 

Why? Because if you don’t know what the child wants then you won’t be able to shape his behavior with as much influence. If your child is acting out to get attention and you give him attention through some punishment, then you are supporting his behavior. You’re not helping the situation.

Understand the Alternatives to Child Punishment

And before you decide on child punishment as your tactic of choice, make sure you consider the alternatives first. The obvious alternative is to implement a reward system for good behavior. I wouldn’t necessarily assume that punishment is going to work better with your child. 

Rules for Effective Child Punishment

So let’s now talk a bit about child punishment and how to go about it properly. I think we can all agree that physical punishment is not acceptable in this day and age. Gone are the days when you bring out the strap. 

With children who are at least 3 years old, I have found that communicating your expectations works best. If you expect Suzie to stop jumping on the couch, tell her to sit down. Then, if she refuses, explain that it is her choice to either stop or to accept some form of punishment. The punishment should fit the situation, be immediately acted upon, and non-negotiable. Suzie can accept the punishment or sit down on the couch. It’s her call. You take yourself out of the equation as the bad guy. You simply act as the movie director explaining the choices. 

A fair punishment might be that she has to go have some quiet time by herself in another room. She may have been jumping for attention, so by moving her to her own room she doesn’t get it. But you need to understand her motivation for jumping in the first place, and if you don’t understand this important factor you may choose a poor child punishment.

A lousy and ineffective punishment would be, “Suzie, you can either sit down and stop jumping, or you’ll not get any dessert tonight after dinner”. That will never work! Suzie is too young to connect the dots when they are that far apart. Jumping is now, and fun. Dessert is later, and she cant’ taste it yet. You’ll just end up with two fights instead of one because Suzie will beg and scream for her dessert while you tell her how she chose to give it up. Don’t do that to yourself!

With children who are too young to understand the complexities of rules, it’s easier to physically intervene with a problem. Pick up 2-year old Tommy off the couch and say to him “Couches are for sitting”. Then move him to a safer place where he can jump. Put him on the carpet floor and say “You can jump here”. Always use positive language rather than negative language. “Don’t jump on the couch” is much less effective! 

I find that with very young children (2 and under) discipline and punishment should really not enter the parenting equation. Parents should focus on reinforcing positive behavior and intervening during negative behavior. The goal should be to replace negative behavior with something more positive, and to train a child through repetition. Good behavior is learned just like reading, writing, walking, talking and … yes … even parenting.

If you enjoyed this article you’ll also enjoy this free audio lesson for parents. I teach parents how to use language effectively to eliminate tantrums, bad behavior, and parenting stress!

For further reading, you might want to check out Ever Notice How Toddler Behavior Isn’t an Issue When They’re Having Fun and What Exactly Are Terrible Twos.