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How Should Punishment Be Used

Updated on December 16, 2011

Does this mean that 'spare the rod and spoil the child' is untrue?

Some psychologists would say 'yes'. If properly devised programmes of positive reinforcement are followed, it should, theoretically, never be necessary to use punishment in training a child. In practice, of course, only the most fortunate of parents will get by without it. So how, if it is inevitable, should punishment be used?

First, in accordance with basic conditioning principles, there should be good discrimination, so that it is clear exactly what behavior is being punished. Without this, correct learning cannot take place. Second, punishment should follow as soon after the unwanted behavior as possible. With children under about three, this means immediately: punishment delivered after a delay at this age will be at best ineffective and may bewilder the child and make him less amenable to good conditioning later-in other words, rebellious.

Third, there should always be room for the child to maneuver.

The child should have the opportunity of making a new response that can be rewarded positively. Fourth, punishment should be unambiguous. It should not be mixed, especially, with any expression of triumph or the child will feel that he, not the response, is being punished. Nor should punishment be mixed with positive feelings. In this case the child will receive both punishment and positive reinforcement and he will be confused. Such confusion can lead to the devaluation of either the punishment, or the positive response, or both.

If punishment seems essential, then remember St. Ignatius's advice: 'hate the sin but not the sinner'. Zimbardo and Ruch updated this maxim to read 'punish the response, not the person'. On no account should punishment be linked to general remarks about the child, such as 'You are stupid, wicked, naughty', or 'I suppose I can't expect anything else from you'.

Punishment can become contagious-those who experience it are more likely to go on and punish others. The process is sometimes termed identification with the aggressor. Punishment is also often context or situation specific in its effect. Punishing a child for bad behavior in the home may have no effect on that child's behavior outside the home. In society at large, or in the family, reliance upon punishment can lead to (or derive from) an authoritarian view that intensive surveillance is vital. The underlying assumption is that a punished person is incapable of managing things for him or herself.

Downgrading the whole person can have few, if any, beneficial results. And this is a danger with another form of discipline often found in ' liberal' middle-class families. Here the negative reinforcement is not a smack or a cross word but the withdrawal of affection. At first sight this may appear to be a more humane method of instilling good behavior. However, there is a real danger that the child will come to devalue himself. Feeling worthless is the first step on the road to general rebelliousness.

And withdrawal of affection can also produce a general inability to give self-reinforcement. As with more overt forms of punishment the danger here is that the practice is self-justifying.

A naughty child is punished, the punishment is ineffective and so the child is punished yet again-and so on.

Continue reading: Conditioning Self-Control


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