3 myths about punishment

3 myths about punishment

When it comes to correcting a child’s behavior, some parents turn to punishment. Unfortunately, they don’t know that punishment only works in the short term, but does not eliminate bad behavior in the long term. In fact, quite the contrary happens, punishment often increases the child’s tendency to misbehave. 

Here three main myths about punishment and why it doesn’t work.

Myth 1: Punishment will teach the child the desired behavior
While punishment can make a child stop a bad behavior at that moment because you interrupted, the fact that you punished the child won’t automatically make them not engage in better behavior in the future. For children, the relationship to turn a negative input (punishment) into a positive output (good behavior) is just way too abstract.

For example, if you yell at your child because they are talking when eating, the child may finish the meal without saying another word. But that does not mean that they will not speak during the next meal. Not only will your child have forgotten, but they can’t link your angry yelling to the idea that they should be quiet — come to think of it, a loud “be quiet now!” is quite a paradox. 

If you want a child to learn the habit of eating without talking, you have to show how it’s done and praise the child whenever they don’t talk during mealtime.

Myth 2: Longer or more intense punishment is more effective
It’s natural to think that if you increase the severity or the duration of the punishment, the child will be forced to learn how to behave. But that is not true — longer or more intense punishment does not increase the effectiveness in changing a child’s behavior. As a matter of fact, the child will quickly adapt to the new punishment, no matter how painful it might seem initially. Once they have adapted to the new punishment, it won’t have any more effective in stopping the bad behavior.

It really doesn’t matter whether the punishment is mild or severe, it is not an effective way of changing behavior in the long term. So, if you have a strong-willed child that is doing something you don’t like and you smack them, they may end up doing it even more. Next time you smack them harder, and they may stop it for the moment but later will still do it another time. 

Corporal punishment, therefore, is not only ineffective but it can also harm the relationship with your child and their own sense of security — children who get hurt from the very people that should protect them, often develop anxiety later in life. 

Myth 3: Talking to the child about the misbehavior is effective in changing behavior
It is always good to explain things to your child. It teaches them how you think and might make them understand why you want them to do, or not do, certain things. Plus, it builds your relationship.

But explanations alone are not enough in changing a child’s behavior, because knowing and acting rightly are totally different and unconnected. A child may know that something is wrong and still do it — it’s in our human nature. For example, most adults know red meat and smoking are not good for us, and yet, many eat beef and smoke cigarettes. 

While it’s good to explain, you need to do more if you want to get your child to do the things you want — this is where positive reinforcements and modeling behavior comes in. 

Positive reinforcements are rewards, like praise, a hug, high five, or simply paying full attention when they behave well.

Modeling behavior means that you and family members regularly behave the way you want them to behave — and since children always copy their parents it works better than anything. So, if you want them to speak nice and friendly, there is nothing better than showing them how it’s done, even when they misbehave.


Ketsupa Jirakarn (Mental health specialist) (31 March 2021)


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