Hunter Clarke-Fields

What do children learn from punishment?
March 15, 2017

If you had told me eight years ago that I would not use punishment with my children I would have thought you were crazy. How would I have any control over my children?

I remember getting to know a new family in the neighborhood who didn’t use time-outs and I thought that was nuts. I was not going to be the kind of parent who let her children run rampant.

The funny thing is, now I don’t use punishment and haven’t for years…and my children don’t run rampant, thank you very much.

So what’s the deal?

There were two problems with my earlier ideas about punishment: (1) I didn’t have a clear idea of what punishment teaches children; and (2) I didn’t have a clear alternative model.

What do children learn from punishment?

One of the biggest problems with punishment is that it doesn’t actually teach your child anything good. The idea is that if you punish the child for misbehavior, they will see the error of their ways and want to do right, right?


In fact, there have been many studies about punishment over the years, and they come to the same conclusions: punishment does not bring about good behavior.

Wait a second, you may say, my child does what I say when I threaten punishment. So punishment “works.”

The problem is, while fear wins in the short run, in the long run, punishment makes your child less likely to do as you ask because they have learned to resent you.

First, let’s get this out there. Physical punishment, spanking, is hugely damaging. It’s associated with: verbal and physical aggression; delinquent, antisocial, and criminal behavior; poorer quality of parent-child relationships; impaired mental health; and later abuse of one’s own spouse and children.

You only use time-outs? I’m sorry, but that also backfires. It also makes your child less likely to cooperate in the future.

Punishment focuses a child on the “consequences” he or she suffering, rather than on the consequences of the behavior to someone else. This makes your child more self-centered and less empathic.

Punishment makes your child feel like she’s a bad person. This becomes an identity and a self-fulfilling prophecy, so she’s more likely to repeat the bad behavior.

Punishment doesn’t teach your child good behavior. It teaches your child to avoid more punishment in the future, so they will sneak and lie to escape detection, so punishment fosters dishonesty.

Punishment–yes, even timeouts–erode your relationship with your child, making them less likely to want to help you. The less connected you are to your child, the worse their behavior becomes.

{Below: creating connection earlier this week}

So what do we do?

Letting your child run the show is not an option. Instead we can help them get through these situations learning better ways to show up in the world.

When your child makes a mistake, does something wrong, what do you want them to learn? Often we are simply acting out our anger rather than thinking about what we really want to teach our child.

Teach your child through your actions and responses how to take care of their difficult feelings. When you are angry and frustrated, this is the perfect opportunity to model how to take care of challenging feelings in a healthy way.

I invite you to look at your yourself and ask, “Am I acting out my anger or am I teaching my child a better way to be in the world?”

Ask yourself, “What do I need in this moment? What does my child need?”

Research has shown that parents do not explain and discuss situations with their child as much as they should. Help your child understand the full picture – including your needs and how their behavior affects you.

I offer this to you as food for thought. Don’t take my word for it, but look at your own situation and see how punishment affects your child.

Do you use punishment? Share your story in the comments.

Thank you so much for reading, my friend!

With warmth & lovingkindness,

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