Think for a moment about a time you were punished as a child.
Really think about it.
Now, do you remember sitting in your room thinking:
“What can I learn from this?”
Do you remember the punishment being a powerful learning opportunity?
Or do you remember plotting revenge, hating your parents, and swearing you won’t get caught next time?
Did you ponder all the ways you could behave better, and of how you could make amends?
Or did you spend more time thinking about how unfair the punishment was—and how you couldn’t wait to grow up so nobody told you what to do anymore?
The truth is that punishment doesn’t work.
It can not only fail to correct the offending behavior, it can backfire drastically—on both your child’s life and the relationship you share.
I get it that you don’t want your child to think that he or she can do whatever they want without consequences.
Yet the reality is that most forms of punishment are not only ineffective, but also damaging.
One of the things you want as a parent is the kind of relationship where your children feel safe enough to come to you and tell you anything.
If they know they’re going to be punished, they may not do this. Instead, they may hide the behavior or confide in other people—and probably people you don’t want as role models for your children.
In addition, punishment absolves a child. If a child does something wrong and they are punished for it, they actually feel okay—as if somehow they’ve paid the price for what they did and they don’t have to think about it anymore.
Now, they might be conditioned to act in a way to avoid punishment, but there’s no real learning.
Instead of reflecting on their actions and learning from them, a child stays stuck in anger and feelings of powerlessness. He won’t be redirecting his thinking to what he can do that works or that doesn’t have a negative consequence.
Punishment can instill negative beliefs in your child for life, setting him up for unnecessary struggle and pain. Let me explain…
In my work with adults, I’ve found that there are three common beliefs that keep people stuck and unfulfilled. Perhaps you can relate to them:
Sadly, these beliefs often develop out of childhoods where punishment was the norm. When a child is punished, he can’t easily differentiate between his behavior and his identity. He thinks that if he has done something bad, then HE must be bad.
Can you see how the belief “I’ve done something bad” will lead a child to see themselves as bad?
From this one negative belief, children can develop a pervasive sense of guilt and shame. This belief, if not corrected, can set them up for disappointment and failure in relationships, career, and life in general.
Likewise, the belief that “life is not fair” results in children growing up feeling victimized, thinking that life is not going to turn out in their favor, that they can’t do anything about what’s happening.
There’s no way that punishment will ever lead to positive beliefs or even a positive moral sense about right or wrong.
Punishment is domination over another. It is a withdrawal of something—love, privileges—and it is something that is so common from generation to generation that when things don’t go the way we want them to go, we automatically play “take away.”
Why do people think that punishment works? Why do people think that children who don’t do what they are supposed to do should be punished? It is as if we have to make somebody feel bad about themselves in order for them to learn.
But think of your own life. Are you motivated to change when your partner lashes out at you or withholds affection?
Or do you feel so bad about yourself and your relationship that you even start to question whether you’re loved?
If punishment worked, your kid would never repeat mistakes.
Instead of causing the kids to change and improve, they find ways to get what they want in secret. They sneak around. They lie. They hide from you. They’re living in fear—fear of having your love or something else they value taken away.
They haven’t learned the values that you wanted them to learn. Those come from a compassionate conversation.
This doesn’t mean that if your kid hits someone, for instance, you wouldn’t take him or her out of the environment in order to protect other children—or that there may be consequences.
There are so many wonderful questions that you can ask that would teach your children to look inside and develop their own moral standards, by asking and answering those questions for themselves.
You can sit down and ask your child:
“What were you thinking when you did that?”
“What was the consequence?”
“How would you feel if somebody did that to you?”
For instance, you can ask a teenager:
“What might the consequence be if you keep bringing my car home with an empty tank of gas every time you use it?”
If they realize they may not be allowed to use the car for a while, that will be a much bigger motivator than revoking driving privileges on the spot.
If you don’t punish a child, and if instead you talk to a child about what they did, then they actually have to think about what they did!
Again, this is not about letting your child run wild or have no consequence for their actions. It’s just about using the skills and tools of compassion, of teaching, of asking questions rather than punishing.
I promise you would have a better relationship with your child as a function of doing this.
I’ve seen it time and time again—with my own children, and those of the thousands of parents I’ve worked with.
One thing I’ve noticed in working with parents is that they’re overwhelmed by conflicting information and advice about what’s “right” when it comes to raising children. That’s why I’ve made it my mission to teach parents what I know works to not just parent children, but to raise them to become adults who feel capable and confident.
It’s also why I decided to partner with Flourish: a community of experts dedicated to enhancing every relationship in your life, including the special one you have with your kids.
When you subscribe to Flourish’s FREE parenting newsletter, you’ll receive tried-and-tested advice (on both parents and kids!) for how to create a win-win household for everyone in your family. Subscribe and learn:
You are not always going to be there to protect your children, to find out what they did, to punish them, to discipline them. You want to teach them how to judge for themselves whether or not their actions were workable, useful, valuable, or hurtful to others.
Most of all, you want them to grow into empowered adults who intrinsically feel motivated to behave with integrity.