Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Smile at babies and toddlers and they will almost always do more of what they’re doing, with even more enthusiasm. Frown deeply at them and they will either become hesitant, stop what they’re doing altogether, or even start crying. The smile is rewarding; the frown is punishing. This is operant conditioning, a method of learning that uses rewards and punishments

Rewards make a behavior more likely to occur in the future

Note that psychologists seldom use the word “reward,” preferring the term “reinforcement” instead. They argue rewards are pleasant things while reinforcement is more objectively defined as rewards or punishments that make an organism more likely to repeat a behavior. Regardless of what you call it, reinforcement makes a behavior more likely to happen again.

So if a reward makes a behavior more likely to occur again, and punishment is the opposite of reward, punishment will make it less likely, right? 

Not necessarily. What punishment really does is motivate us to avoid punishment in the future, and that means avoiding being around the punisher. With kids in particular, they get better at not getting caught by their parents. Not getting caught is the best of all worlds for kids — they get to keep on enjoying what they’re not supposed to do while getting away with it by outsmarting their parents.

Most parents don’t know this, and so they use their “common sense,” which leads them to overestimate the value and effectiveness of punishment

When they punish their kids, they cease to see the behavior and naively assume it to be one more parenting job well done. What they’ve missed is that the behavior hasn’t been extinguished, it’s just gone underground. What parents are really teaching their kids is to be sneaky (while giving the appearance of compliance) and become better liars. So parents who think they’re rewarding their kids for their good behavior are instead rewarding them for being sneaks and liars. This increases their sneaking and lying because these actions help them to avoid being punished.  

The most effective punishment meets these four criteria:

1. It must be unavoidable

Quite obviously, punishment avoided is no punishment at all.

2. It must be administered infrequently

When punishments are used too often, we get habituated to them. We get used to that level of suffering, which becomes our “normal,” and we learn to live with it. Punishment is most effective when it is used the least. The more punishment is used, the more the person adjusts to it, and the less effective it is. And if all that’s not enough, there are times when punishment actually increases the frequency of the behavior. How can that be?

Post-punishment, the punisher is apt to feel at least a bit guilty and thus may actually be more supportive, rewarding, and solicitous than normal. The attention gained by earning punishment and the positive interactions that follow when all has been forgiven may well be worth the punishment itself.

3. It must be immediate

The longer punishment is delayed, the less we fear it. The pleasure of the behavior is immediate and if the punishment is distant enough, the immediate pleasure wins. Here’s an example:

Many people eat too much of too many bad foods and exercise too little, a combination that causes serious health problems and early death, which most of us will agree are very severe punishments. But the pleasure of eating (and not working hard at exercising) is immediate, and the punishment is too far away to motivate changes in our behavior. If you knew you’d drop dead the next time you ate a pizza, you’d have something else. If you knew you were going to have a stroke at 7 pm tonight unless you went to the gym, you’d get there early.

4. It must be relevant

If it’s not defined negatively by the one being punished, it’s no punishment at all.

When set upon by the fox and the bear, Bre’r Rabbit tricked them by begging them “Whatever you do to me, please don’t throw me in that briar patch,” that being the place where he could make his getaway. This you know as reverse psychology.

Let’s say you’re a parent who relies on punishment a lot

Your son does something you don’t like and you ground him for a week. Before the week is up, he’s done something else you don’t like, so you ground him for a while longer. His punishment finally expires, he does something else, and the punishment is applied again. Do this enough times, and when you say “You’re grounded,” he will think, “No big deal – I’m always grounded.” 

Being punished is his usual state and he’s learned to live life under punishment

  • He texts his friends and maintains his social life, connected while away from face-to-face interaction, which has become less and less important to kids, and less of a punishment.
  • He learns to schedule social events before he gets home from school or before you get home. 
  • He learns to disguise social visits as class projects, study lessons, and library visits.
  • He may even sneak out of the house at night. 

So in spite of your punishment, and in spite of what he might say, he’s not really all that unhappy.  And he won’t see his bad behavior as a problem as much as he sees you as the problem. 

That damn bike again

Let’s say you get in your car at home, and as you begin to back up, you catch a glimpse of a bicycle on the ground and slam on your brakes just before hitting it. Once again, your kid has left it lying in the driveway, where it is in danger of being backed over or stolen. Most of us would feel punishment is deserved here. You might even rush back into the house and spank the child or take something away from him for leaving the bike on the ground again. You are hoping the child will stop leaving the bike in the driveway in order to avoid these punishments.

The problem is that punishments are arbitrary if there is no logical connection between them and leaving the bike in the driveway

Your acting emotionally and not rationally is not a wise way to punish your kid. You chose your idea of a punishment because it easily to mind, was easy to administer, and you were frustrated and angry.

Consider this instead

Rather than angrily storming back into the house (which teaches your children that anger is the appropriate response to frustration, by the way), you take the bicycle, wheel it into the garage, chain and padlock it to the wall in plain sight, and leave for work with no confrontation.

When your child discovers the bike chained and unusable, sooner or later, he’ll probably come and ask about it 

You calmly explain that you found it behind the car where it was in danger of being crushed or stolen, and in order for it to remain safe, you chained it securely in the garage. At this point, the child is likely to whine, complain, or protest that he wants to ride it.

Calmly again, you explain the bike was in danger and you had to take steps to keep it safe by locking it up. Then you say it will be unchained in a week or two, and when it is, you trust it will not be left in an appropriate spot again. But if it is, you will have to chain it up again for its own safety and the safety of your car. It is a punishment because you are taking a good thing away from the child and it’s a logical one. The problem was the bike was in jeopardy and it won’t be in jeopardy if it is chained in the garage.

Didn’t you just say that in order for punishment to be effective, it must be immediate?

Yes, but if you don’t confront the child immediately, the child does not yet know it’s a problem.

The bottom line

Most common sense punishments aren’t as effective as parents believe and often create effects worse than the original transgressions.


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