We love our children and want them to “be good”. So when they “misbehave”, we want to “teach them a lesson”. We want the consequence to be severe enough that they will “learn” and behave “appropriately” next time. We are teaching them indeed, but perhaps the lesson we are teaching is not the one we intended.

Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist specializing in child development and parenting, has researched punishment extensively. Here are a few of her scientific, empirically validated research findings taken (just about verbatim) from her fabulous, mama-life-changing book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. I can’t praise this book enough; it has been on my bedside table since before my oldest children could talk in full sentences! (p. 149—151):

  • Punishment does not teach children better behaviour. It actually creates more negative behaviour. It isn’t just that children who behave badly get punished more, but that children who get punished more will behave badly more often over time.
  • That is because punishment teaches the following lessons:
    • Punishment models force. (Ask a child whose parents yell or spank to “play mommy” and watch her discipline her dolls.)
    • Punishment convinces the child he is “bad”. Bad for having the bad feelings that drove him to behave badly, bad for behaving badly, bad for causing us to be angry at him, bad for getting mad when we punish him. Sadly, studies have shown the child lives up or down to our expectations, meaning that children who think they are bad will act “bad”.
    • Punishment keeps the child from taking responsibility for her actions, because it creates an external locus of control – the authority figure. When a child is punished, she begins to see herself as unable to regulate her own behaviour. She no longer sees it as her job to “behave”, instead it is the authority figure’s job to “make her” behave.
    • Punishment makes the child angry that we are intentionally hurting him, whether physically or emotionally, so he resists seeing the behaviour we’re attempting to promote as having any value to him. He becomes defiant, angry, more aggressive, and more likely to act out.
    • Punishment teaches kids to focus on whether they’ll get caught and punished instead of focusing on the negative impact of their behaviour.
    • Punishment weakens our child’s connection to us, which is his only real motivation to choose to follow our rules (see A Well-Behaved Child Is A Connected Child).
  • The more painful the child perceives the punishment, the more deeply the child learns the above lessons, and the more her behaviour suffers. Time-outs and arbitrary consequences have similar effects on the child.
  • The above statements are not arguments in favour of permissive parenting, or letting the child do whatever he wants. Children look to their parents for guidance. In fact, they feel unsafe when they don’t get the guidance and actually push for it. That’s what we mean when we say a child is “testing the limits”.
  • Despite the obvious necessity for limits, it is never necessary to be less than kind and compassionate in offering them. Children will be more likely to accept our standards as their own if we give them loving guidance rather than punishment.

So when we punish, despite our loving intentions, we teach our child that he is bad, I’m against him, I cause him harm on purpose, I am stronger, and the stronger person wins.

Of course this doesn’t mean your child that’s been in time-out or has had her TV privileges temporarily revoked will be scarred for life. But the relationship may feel lighter, deeper, and more peaceful with a bit more connection and a bit less force.

Also see: How Do I Teach My Children to Treat ME, and How Do I Treat THEM?

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