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Home | Insights | Punishment Doesn’t Work — Here’s Why (Part 1 of 2)

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Punishment Doesn’t Work — Here’s Why (Part 1 of 2)

Newsflash: my children do not always do what I want them to do.

They have been known to ignore me, give me an emphatic “no,” or simply “forget” to follow through on assigned tasks.

This never happens to you, right? 😉

Well, on the off chance that it has, on the off chance that you are a parent who has stumbled upon that moment where your beautiful baby doesn’t behave like the perfect angel you imagined them to be when you became a parent, let’s talk about what to do.

Let’s talk about punishment.

What do I mean by that?

I mean those consequences you impose when you are frustrated, angry, disappointed, feeling disrespected, or simply at your wit’s end.

I mean punitive time-outs; grounding; taking toys or beloved objects away; motivating with fear (“If you don’t do X, Y will happen”); yelling, shaming, or scolding; spanking; and even bribes.

They are, in many cases, the only tools we know how to use, or the only tools that feel effective.

But are they really? Do they work?

That depends on what you mean by “work.”  They can be effective—at least temporarily—in controlling or modifying your child’s behavior. I’ll give you that.

But if we want to teach children to be and feel capable, like they can contribute, and like they can influence what happens to them, maybe not so much.  And if we want them to develop good judgement and moral reasoning?  Well, they fall short there, too.

Why?  Why don’t these go-to tools passed down from generation to generation actually work in the long-term sense of the word? cartoon lightbulb with an idea

Here’s why:

  1. They don’t make sense. Fundamentally, these forms of behavior modification are based on one fundamental and flawed idea: that in order to make a child do better, we have to make them feel bad.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t often feel motivated to cooperate, help, and “play nicely” when I feel bad.  Like most adults, children do better when they feel better, so we are likely working at cross purposes when we deliver heavy-handed punishments, even when they are cleverly labeled or disguised as “consequences.”


  1. They fail to address the belief behind the behavior. That is, punishments don’t leave space to consider what might be going on underneath the surface.  Is the child feeling disconnected, hurt, incapable, or without any control over their own life?  What message is their behavior sending to their parent or caregiver?  Understanding this can be critical to solving any problems long-term, but is often ignored or skipped over when punishment is our go-to approach.


  1. They fail to build meaningful connection, and instead create a parent-child dynamic based on fear and control. This shifts our child’s behavior from doing what’s right because it’s the right thing to do (the development of moral reasoning) to seeking only to avoid punishment.  And with that state of mind, children tend to become either blindly obedient (not a healthy or safe dynamic), or rebellious with a focus toward not getting caught as opposed to not doing (also often not safe).


  1. They don’t work long-term. I’m a fan of parenting tools that work whether you have a toddler or a teen—this is one of my favorite aspects of positive discipline.  Traditional punishments don’t do that—it’s pretty difficult to put a teen in time-out or spank them.  Sure, you can yell, scold, and shame a teen, but is the damage to your relationship with them worth it? After all, the typical teen has a memory like an elephant when it comes to the wrongdoings of their parents.


  1. They make parenting un-fun. When punishments are your go-to tool for managing a child or teen’s behavior, it sets up an “Us versus Them” mentality.  This means rather than working with our children, we are working against them.  It cements the perspective that our children are being “bad” just to push our buttons and that our job is to win over and against them.  And while it may work for a short while, it just doesn’t feel good for anyone involved.  And it makes parenting pretty un-fun.


So what’s a parent to do?  Let them run wild and free and do what they please?  Let them walk all over us?  Hardly.

We do still have to parent, after all.

Stay tuned next week as we discuss how to build a different understanding of behavior management and what to do instead of time-outs and taking toys away.

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Christy Keating fun headshot

Christy Keating is a certified parent coach,  positive discipline educator, and motivational speaker. She is the founder and CEO of The Heartful Parent Collective, which includes Heartful Parent Coaching, Savvy Parents Safe Kids, and Heartful Parent Academy.

The mother of two amazing daughters, Christy strives to build a happier, healthier world - one child, one parent, and one family at a time.