As a behaviour change tool, punishment has its limitations.
Before I tell you why I need to bore you with some technical definitions. The word punishment usually means a penalty or a negative experience imposed on someone when they are guilty of wrong doing. Within behavioural science, punishment is a technical term meaning any event that weakens the behaviour that precedes it (i.e. makes the behaviour that precedes it less likely to occur in the future). When I say that punishment has its limitations, I’m talking about punishment as it is defined within behavioural science. A smack, yelling, time out, planned ignoring or explaining why a behaviour was wrong all may function as punishers. Natural consequences like falling over, feeling sick, breaking a toy, or missing out on a desirable activity all may function as punishers too. And in any given situation, any of these events may not be functioning as punishers after all because punishment, in behavioural science, is defined by its effects. A punisher is a punisher if it weakens the behaviour that precedes it.
And punishment has its limitations. Why? And how can parents take this into account?
- Punishment is imprecise. It weakens a specific behaviour without teaching what should be done instead. Punishment literally teaches us to avoid punishment. It doesn’t specify how. For example, a child who is caught cheating and experiences punishment may have learnt to stop cheating or they may have simply learnt to avoid getting caught.
Solution: Reinforcement is precise. A reinforcer is any event that strengthens the behaviour that precedes it (i.e. makes the behaviour that precedes it more likely to occur in the future). Never rely solely on punishment for behaviour change. Instead, always consider what your child could do instead of the misbehaviour in that situation. Teach and reinforce alternative behaviours. Overall, as a parent, try to focus on growing the behaviours that you’d like to see, rather than on eliminating the behaviours that you don’t like. For example, a child who tells the truth and is reinforced for truth telling has learnt to tell the truth.
- We can’t unlearn. Just because a behaviour has been punished doesn’t mean that behaviour has been wiped from our behavioural repertoire. The behaviour may re-emerge in the future when the conditions are right, particularly when punishment is no longer a possibility. For example, parents may find that their children behave well but only when there is a constant threat of punishment. Parents may also find that their children act a certain way throughout childhood, but this isn’t maintained into adulthood.
Solution: We can learn. Ensure that your child’s life is rich in reinforcement for a wide variety of positive behaviours so that your child develops a complex and flexible behavioural repertoire. Maintain positive behaviours through reinforcement not through the threat of punishment. For example, children may regularly engage in thoughtful acts because they know that their thoughtfulness is appreciated by their parents. As they grow up, such children will gravitate towards friends who also appreciate their thoughtfulness and they will learn to appreciate thoughtfulness in themselves. In adulthood they will be thoughtful even when there is no obvious cost to being thoughtless.
- Punishment is aversive. Using punishment to change another person’s behaviour means knowingly doing something that person finds aversive or removing something that person finds rewarding. By doing so, you are modelling how to control the behaviour of others through aversive means. For example, if a parent uses yelling or smacking to manage misbehaviour in their children, then they are modelling yelling and smacking for their children. Their children are more likely to try yelling and smacking.
Solution: Don’t control your child through aversion. Don’t do anything that you don’t want your child doing themselves, not even as a response to their misbehaviour. As much as possible, respond to misbehaviour by imitating natural consequences or the kinds of consequences that are reasonable and likely in social situations. For example, it is reasonable to expect to be spoken to in a friendly voice and to let your child know that you won’t respond to them until a friendly voice is used. Respond as soon as your child’s voice is friendlier.
- Punishment is narrowing. By definition it removes particular behaviours as possibilities. If punishment is used frequently, if particular behavioural patterns are being maintained under threat of punishment, rather than for reinforcement, then behaviour becomes limited, rigid and inflexible. When our behaviour is maintained due to a threat of punishment, we experience our choices as forced. For example, children may behave in a manner that is consistent with their parent’s ideals in order to avoid punishment but without taking on the ideals as their own. When behavioural patterns are maintained under threat of punishment, children may also have difficulty figuring out how to act in novel situations because they lack the flexibility and creativity required.
Solution: Reinforcement is freedom. Behaviour maintained by reinforcement is experienced as freely chosen. When behavioural patterns are, for the most part, maintained by reinforcement, behaviour becomes flexible and creative. For example, children experience their thoughtful, kind, and compassionate acts as freely chosen and hence come to think of themselves as thoughtful, kind and compassionate people. With time, they discover the general principles at work, such as ‘be kind’ and recognise that there are thousands of ways to be kind, flexibly choosing what fits the situation they are in.
Apply it to your life: Have you noticed that punishment has limitations? What happens when you shift to maintaining behaviour through reinforcement instead?