Why Punishments Don’t Work

You’ve tried it all.

Taking away toys.  Taking away fun stuff to do.   Canceling playdates or a trip to the aquarium. Time-outs.  Yelling.  Spanking.  Isolation.  Lectures.

How’s that working for you?  Have the behaviors gone away?  Do you now have calm, pleasant, cooperative children?  Or does the need for these strategies continue?

To be fair, there are times, and there are highly skilled methods of implementing these techniques that do sometimes work, and do lessen the behaviors.  But not usually.

Why?  Because punishments don’t work.

Before you jump all over me, I should clarify what I mean (and don’t mean) by “work.”  If by “working,” we mean that the behavior stops in the moment, yes, sometimes that happens.  If by “working,” we mean that we get a much-needed break from the behavior–and maybe from the child that has pushed all of our buttons–yes, sometimes that happens.  If by “working,” we mean that some children learn to control their behavior out of fear of punishment, yes, that sometimes happens.  If these are the things that you’re after, then maybe punishments are “working” for you.   So let me clarify what I mean. When I say “working,” I mean that the behaviors that you do not like decrease or are eliminated.

So why doesn’t punishment work (my blog, my definition)?   There are a few answers.

The shortest explanation is that almost all of children’s challenging behaviors arise out of lack of connection with their parents (or other trusted adults).  You can’t fix lack of connection with more lack of connection.  You can only fix lack of connection with connection.  That’s about as simple as it gets.

As adults (with any luck), we have learned to regulate our emotional states, and hopefully have a set a coping strategies to get ourselves through difficult spots, including the simplest of issues (like being hungry in a meeting, for example).  We can do this because we have mature prefrontal cortexes (the front part of our brains, behind our foreheads.)  That part of our brain is all about impulse control and planning and strategizing and waiting and coming up with ways to stay calm in the face of frustration (not that that always works, of course!).   That part of the human brain does not mature until our mid-20’s.

Let me repeat myself.  That part of the human brain does not mature until our mid-20’s. 

Teenagers don’t have it.  10 year olds don’t have it.  7 year olds don’t have it.  Some adults don’t have it.  And we are expecting three year olds to have it.  They can’t.  They don’t.  It’s not part of their chemistry.

But here’s the clincher.  Young children, in all their brilliance, do, in fact, have a strategy to help them through the difficult times when they are hungry, impatient, overwhelmed, tired, or otherwise without resources.   Their strategy is YOU.

Young children use trusted adults as a regulator.  We’ve all seen it, and we know it’s true.  We’ve all had the experience of an infant calming and “melting” when being snuggled into our arms.  We’ve all seen toddlers crawl up into our laps for a snuggle, only to then quickly return to their play–that was like a “shot” of regulation, to keep them from becoming overloaded or overwhelmed…and they initiated it all on their own!    Kids are so brilliant.  adult-and-child-holding-handsPreschoolers reach out to hold hands, they look up at us without us knowing why, they ask us to play a game when we’re in the middle of making dinner, they ask to read a book, sometimes at the most inopportune time.  “Sing me a song.” “Daddy, come watch me!”  They invite and ask for our engagement and connection, because they know.  They know that we are their tools, while they are young.  They know, in all their wisdom, that real connection–even if sometimes very brief–is what allows them to stay on task and to avoid emotional overload.

When that connection is disrupted (and disruption is in the eye of the child), the door to emotional disregulation is left wide open.  The feelings, body sensations, sounds, environment, fears…all of those tricky things that derail life for any of us–at any age…they’re all right there.

So, play along with me for a minute.  You’re two, or three, or four, or five, and for whatever reason (and for many very good reasons!) your grown-up isn’t available right now.  Maybe she’s changing your baby sister’s diaper.  Maybe he’s making dinner.  Maybe they’re hurrying around the house trying to get out the door to work.  Maybe she is there, physically, but she is so worried about finances that she’s off in her own coping strategies and not really there (something that any young child can tell in a split second.)  Maybe your parents are just talking to one another or other adults and you really need something.  Your regulation strategy–the only one you really have–is not there.  The feelings grow. And when they get too big, they come out.  And then your dad gets mad and  you get punished for not being able to hold them in any more.  And there you are, thinking “how is that my fault?”  What do you learn from this?  “Get better at holding those feelings in?” Well, even grown-ups aren’t very good at that, and they have that part of the brain that lets them do that.  “I’m on my own?”  I’M ON MY OWN??  I’M THREE!!

So, is lack of connection behind all problem behavior?  No.  Not all.  Most.  But not all. And even when it is not the cause, connection helps, both to address and to “diagnose” the behavior.

There’s the issue of “barking up the wrong tree.”  Behavior is not simply behavior.  Tantrums are not just tantrums.  A screaming or whining child is not just doing it for their own entertainment, or even just because “this is just what two year olds do.”  All behavior has a reason, despite the frequency with which we, as parents, say “she melted down for no reason at all!”  I assure you, there was a reason.  The fact that we, as parents, sometimes can’t discern what that reason is (or don’t want to take the time to figure it out) doesn’t mean it was “for no reason at all.” Discipline, to be genuinely effective, must accurately match the behavior–and far more importantly, the REASON for the behavior.child crowd  Not getting to ride a pony at a farm because your small stomach got so hungry and your blood sugar went down and you got very fussy when you were told it was still an hour before lunch and you don’t yet have the vocabulary to explain that adequately just doesn’t make sense.  We might even ask if “discipline” is what is called for in a situation like this one, or whether changing plans a bit and getting the child a good dose of protein and some quiet time to calm down might just be the ticket (followed by a pony ride, and possibly an apology for being a bit late to lunch with friends.)

Most of us (aside from those who are currently running schools that still use this philosophy) can “get” that taking away recess from children in school as a punishment for not being able to sit still (i.e. needing to move and get outside) is ironic at best.  But somehow, we cannot see the irony in our own children who–as a result of age, or stimulation, or fatigue or hunger–are unable to manage their bodies or emotions while being asked to wait for something that they want or need, and as a result, we take that something away as a punishment for the resulting behavior.  Someone fill me in–what’s the difference?

Behaviors that do not arise directly out of lack of connection (which, again, is relatively few) often are linked to sensory, stimulation, or emotional overload.  Okay, I hear you saying, if she is acting up because there is too much going on, then having her sit in a quiet place for a while should be the logical antidote…in which case, time-out would be a good solution.  Well, yes and no.  Yes, if you suspect that the behavior is due to an overdose of stimulation, being in a quiet space for awhile could really help.   But why alone?  And why with a punitive tone?  If you are seeking to give your child relief from the overload, that is a kind and compassionate response–so why would you want it to be tinged with a feeling of “you’re bad, so you have to go be alone in this room and I’m not going to talk to you”?

This is a time for “time-in”, not “time-out.” (in other words, connection.)  Yes, it is a time for being in a quiet space and getting some relief.  So let go of the things that you came there to do–just for a bit.  Tell the people you are with that you’re going to the bathroom, or you’re going to go take a little break for 15 minutes.  And then talk with your child.   Tell him that you see that this is all very loud/crowded/bright/overwhelming.   Suggest that the two (or three or four, though one-on-one is ideal, when possible) of you find a quiet space together.  Go to that space.  Speak softly.  Time inRead a book together.  Let them sit in your lap.   Give one another a cuddle (if that’s something your child likes, sometimes not the best thing when overwhelmed).  Affirm that this is a very busy place, that sometimes our bodies get all riled up when there is a lot of noise or a lot of people around, and it’s good to take a break if you need it.  (By the way, by doing this, you are also building good coping strategies for him to use himself when he is older–even as an adult!)  Take a break.  Let your child lead the way, but make the limits clear, so he knows what to expect.  Set a time limit (“we have about 15 minutes to spend here before we need to go back and join mommy and the others”).  Or, if you have the luxury of being open-ended with your time, turn it over to your child (“Sometimes things are really loud/overwhelming–right now, I want to take a little break with you so we can both relax.  When you’re ready to go back and join mommy and the others, let me know.”

Young children are not in charge of where they go or the level of stimulation they will experience while they are there.  We know when we are taking them to a place where stimulation is likely to be high:  crowds, noise, loud music, bright lights, strong smells. When we stop and think about it, we can anticipate that behavior will likely be very challenging, because our young children do not have positive coping strategies for all that sensory input (other than sometimes falling asleep, which can also be disruptive, if it throws the schedule or agenda off.)  We can, in advance, acknowledge and cfrustrated-momommunicate that it can be loud (or whatever) there and there are lots of people and that we will take breaks so that it doesn’t get too overwhelming.   We can anticipate the kind of food that they will have at that place or what we need to bring along, and we can anticipate that they will need a little nutritious snack before they will ask for it--by the time they ask for it, they will be too hungry (it’s hard to pay attention to whether you’re hungry in the face of a lot of stimulation.)  And we can bend down–a LOT–and get on our children’s level, whether they are walking or in a stroller.  We can, through looks and words and calmness and  reassurances and holding-of-hands and time-ins and patience in the face of completely predictable behavior challenges, let them know that, even in this big, loud, crowded place, we are there to be their regulators.  That’s what connection is all about.  We can adjust our schedules so that we can try to “catch” tired or hungry before we would normally expect them to occur, and to do so in ways that enhance connection (a cuddle or a snack in a quiet corner, a familiar song, a word or two that lets them know how proud we are of them that they are managing all of this.)

“I am here with you.” “I am here for you.”  “I know it’s overwhelming”.  “I’m following your lead.”

No.  You won’t be able to do this all the time.  It’s really hard work.  It involves putting aside your own goals and sometimes ideas about how a day should go. And of course, it’s nearly impossible if you’re overtired or hungry or emotionally overwhelmed yourself.   As we all know, the value of self-care in parenting cannot be overstated.  So give yourself a break when you’re not at your best.  Just knowing that connection works is enough for now.  Practice when you can.

Try it.  Time-ins.  Connection.  Building time into your schedule so that a break to do nothing won’t throw off the rest of your day.  Seeing behavior through a different lens.  See how it works.   It’s a switch, a change of frames, a different mindset, maybe wholly different from how you grew up or what you thought parenting a young child would be like.  There are thousands who have come before you, and hundreds all around you, that have seen that it works.  Like all things, it won’t work right away, especially when you and your children are used to a certain way of doing things.   You–and your children–may feel adrift or out of control without punishments.  Stick with it.  Connect.  Connect.  Shift frames.  And connect some more.  Ask for help.  Take care of yourself so that you can do this.  Reassure yourself that you are not “spoiling” your child, you are giving them tools that will serve them well throughout their lives.  And let us know how it goes!

4 thoughts on “Why Punishments Don’t Work

  1. Oh, so many questions with this. I agree with all in premise, but in practice, I just haven’t seen how it “works”. To cite one of many circumstances I have with my kids: sitting (reasonably) quiet and still for reasonable periods of time. Examples: at a religious service, in the doctors office, at a restaurant, etc. I have seen (MOST) kids younger than mine able to do this effectively in all these places. And yet with mine, it seems like their ability (will?) to control their impulsive need to climb, run, act out, etc just isn’t there. Yes, I could take them out. I’ve done that. And for years, mostly just tried to avoid such scenarios as much as possible. But I don’t want that message either. My kids need to be able to do this, and I think it more relates to their response to ME as parent than their ability unto itself because I know they CAN do this (sit still/pay attention for extended times) when in other contexts. So what to do??

    • Why do they “need to be able to do this” at an age when it is largely unnatural to do so? And watch out for that comparing your kids to other kids…there are so very many variables and unknowns, and besides, your kids are who they are–they’re individuals, and we have to find the most productive and compassionate ways of working with “what we’ve got” (ie, who they are), not who other people’s kids are, yes?

      • I’m not so sure about that. First, as I said, I DO think they are capable of it. I think they don’t do it because I haven’t set this expectation well. I worry in fact that I’m sending the opposite message (“act out and you can get out of whatever you don’t like to do”). Second, I see this as an important developmental skill to have. I do think it’s important and not so unnatural that they learn to sit and/or behave appropriately in certain contexts such as a doctor’s office waiting room or a grocery store or a waiting room — not for unreasonably crazy amounts of time in complete silence through drudgery, but for shorter times without climbing or throwing things or running away. I truly don’t understand how, if kids are concrete thinkers, and there is not an obvious “natural consequence” for such a circumstance, you can help shape behavior without these pieces of discipline. I agree they are not overly effective. I just have not found an alternative. I’m really challenged by this and have been thinking on it (and reading) a lot without many answers.

  2. “I truly don’t understand how, if kids are concrete thinkers, and there is not an obvious “natural consequence” for such a circumstance, you can help shape behavior without these pieces of discipline.”

    Yes. This is how most parents view it. Which is why I wrote the piece.

    In early childhood, there is no such thing as separate domains of development, like there is later in life. The cognitive part of their brain (the “concrete thinking” that you refer to) and the emotional part of their brain (and for that matter, the physical movement part of their brain) do not, in any way, operate independently. If the solution to this were purely about how they think concretely, then yes, that logic would apply. But young children are social and emotional and impulsive creatures above all, and that influences behavior far more than logic. I have never met a three year old that stops and thinks “Hmm…should i do this or should I not do this…I know that this is the consequence….” and makes the decision thoughtfully. They just act–based on normal neurological lack of impulse control, emotion, desire, and sometimes a desire for attention/connection (positive or negative, same thing.) That’s why it doesn’t really matter that they are “concrete thinkers”–“thinking” isn’t behind their behavior.

    And yes, of course, consistent limits that are developmentally appropriate, fairly and respectfully applied, predictable, and consistent, (even playfully) are critical pieces of the puzzle.

    I hear you. It’s definitely a different way of viewing parenting than most of us come to on our own. And in the face of all that we know as “normal” about parenting young children, it can feel a little “out there”. I highly recommend the amazing work and resources of Hand in Hand Parenting (www.handinhandparenting.org), who are absolute experts in this work and in supporting parents in making it happen.

    My bias toward the subject of this article (behavior management through connection, rather than “discipline”) is based nearly entirely upon witnessing hundreds of parents shift to this method–even after having done quite the opposite–and watching children’s behavior transform. As a parent myself, it has never failed me (when I remember or have the resources to put it into practice, which I don’t always do perfectly, to be sure), while the more “traditional” view of discipline has never really worked. I have probably had a couple hundred moments of sitting back and saying “Right. Why don’t I work harder to do this all the time?” As I reflect on those experiences and watch people that I work with come to the same conclusion, I am ever more convinced.

    In the end, we all definitely have to choose what works for ourselves and our children.

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