changing the way you think about punishment

Punishment is such a dirty word. I feel dirty about it. It’s negative and icky and sinks like a sick pit in my stomach when I think about it. And when I have used it with my children, it has worked in the moment, but has long term consequences.

In behavioral terms, though, punishment is very valuable. It isn’t so much the USE of punishment that’s of value, however, but rather the understanding of the ROLE of punishment. 

Good behavioral science, and by extension, good parenting, is going to focus on constructing behavior: that is, finding the behavior that we want to see more often and reinforcing it, so that it becomes a regular part of a child’s behavior list. For the most part, behavior construction–making the right behaviors stronger—is where we want to be spending our time. Sometimes, though, we need to weaken behavior, or make it disappear, and there is a scientific way to do this as well. In behavioral science, the term for weakening behavior is called punishment. 

Like I said, when we think of punishment, we typically think of something bad or unpleasant or even hurtful. What comes to mind when YOU think of punishment? Maybe time out, or losing a privilege, or maybe spanking. All of those actions can be punishing, sure, but just like reinforcement only occurs when the behavior increases, punishment only occurs when behavior decreases. 

Punishment from a behavioral science perspective doesn’t deserve the bad rap it gets. Punishment happens all the time in our environment and it is a powerful part of learning. If you rush out the door and stub your toe on the bed frame, you are much less likely to rush in the future. Stubbing your toe decreases your rushing behavior in the future. That behavior has been punished. 

If you forget to complete an assignment until the last minute, and you have a rush of stress and hurry to get it done before it is due, you are much less likely to wait until the last minute in the future. That behavior has been punished. 

If you forget your umbrella at home and get soaked on your way into the office, you are much less likely to forget your umbrella in the future. That behavior has been punished. 

Punishment is just a learning tool, and a powerful learning tool, which is why we need to understand how it interacts with behavior. 

Remember, something occurs after every behavior. It could be something that increases that behavior and it could be something that decreases that behavior. 

As caregivers of children who need carefully constructed learning opportunities, we have to use these tools to our advantage. 

Again, reinforcement is used for behaviors that we want to increase, and punishment is used for behaviors that we want to decrease. Ideally, punishment is not needed. It is always preferable to use reinforcement to encourage the behaviors we want and allow those to replace the behaviors we don’t want, making punishment unecessary. Working to encourage the right behaviors is always the goal of parenting. 

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Changing the way you think about punishment: how to change direction in your parenting.

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