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New reason why punishment doesn't work: the law!

From the research that I've done, I'll well aware that using punishment to discipline children is not very effective and can be damaging. Some of the reasons I've learned in the past include:

REASON #1- PUNISHMENT ONLY HAS A SHORT TERM EFFECT: Parents that punish their children have to do it over and over again. The punishment generally only has a short term effect and once the pain (physical or emotional) is no longer top of mind, the child will misbehave again. Kind of like how women are willing to go through childbirth again once they start to forget how much it hurts - the benefits are eventually seen to outweigh the consequences! Similarly, your child might decide that going on a joy ride in your car without a driver's license would be so much fun that it is worth getting grounded.

REASON #2 -A PUNISHED CHILD FOCUSES ON PUNISHER NOT ON BEHAVIOUR: If you punish your child, your child is going to be mad. Your child is going to spend the duration of the punishment thinking about what a mean person you are. Your child is not going to be thinking about what she did and why it was wrong. This can create a rift in the relationship between the parent and the child and be a root cause of even more misbehaviour.

REASON #3 - PUNISHMENT ONLY TEACHES YOUR CHILD NOT TO GET CAUGHT: Children that are punished frequently, learn new ways not to get caught. It doesn't mean that they will stop behaving badly, it just means that they will learn to hide their behaviour, and lie and deceive you. It doesn't teach the child why their actions were wrong or hurtful. It just teaches them to hide them from you next time.

I think if punishments are given sparingly (only when no other discipline option will work), swiftly (immediately after the damaging behaviour), fairly (e.g. making the punishment fit the crime, not punishing your child for acting out if he is acting out because he is tired because you kept him out after his usual bedtime) and in a manner that preserves attachment (e.g. "time in" rather than "time out") then they can be appropriate as a last resort. However, they should never involve spanking (or other physical abuse), never involve shaming, and always need to be combined with an explanation of why the behaviour was damaging so that the child learns from the situation rather than just learning not to get caught next time.

Until today, that was my philosophy on punishment. But reading the newspaper in the past few days has given me another reason to add to the list.


Two newspaper articles in two days have highlighted the legal consequences of punishing your child in Canada.

First, a 12-year old girl took her father to court and successfully had her punishment overturned. She had been using the Internet inappropriately, so he took her Internet privileges away. Then she went to a friend's house and used her computer to post inappropriate pictures of herself on-line. At that point, the father said that she could not go on her school field trip to Quebec City. So the girl (who is in the middle of a custody battle) decided to take her father to court to get the punishment overturned. And the judge agreed that the punishment was too severe and said that the girl could go on her school trip. While I don't think that the judge should have intervened in this case, from some of the articles that I have read and interviews I have heard on this case, it appears as though the family situation is pretty messed up and the girl is probably acting out and doing things like posting provocative pictures of herself on the Internet because of problems in the home. It is her way of dealing with the crappy situation she is in. Perhaps if her father had used some of the techniques in Gordon Neufeld's Hold on to Your Kids instead of trying to punish her, he would have been more successful in improving his relationship with her and improving her behaviour.

Second, the Canadian senate finally approved an anti-spanking bill. Twenty-three other countries already prohibit spanking and Canada is almost there. Céline Hervieux-Payette, the Liberal senator that introduced the bill said:
"My objective in proposing this measure — and my personal goal as a lawmaker — is not to embarrass parents or drag them before a court of law," she said. "Rather, I want to resolve the issue of the harm done to children, to protect their rights and to make sure that parents who are not properly educated about this receive some support."

These two situations both have parents up in arms. They are screaming and yelling about having their rights taken away from them. I'll let others debate whether our courts should be involved in these scenarios or not, but I would be glad if the legal attention these issues are getting makes more parents realize that there are other options other than punishment to discipline children and turn them into good, caring people.
« Book Review: The Discipline Book (by William Sears, M.D and Martha Sears, R.N) | Main | Short-term versus long-term parenting »

Reader Comments (8)

i am horrified by this on so many levels.
that the courts are interfering in parenting. as a school teacher i am none too pleased with the quality of education the government gives, i would not be impressed by their quality of parenting.
If my daughter were posting such things on the internet i would consider keeping her home and not entrusting her to a few teachers who have to chaperon a large number of kids on a trip to a large city as being diligent and careful. The punishment aspect of it would be a sideline.

in terms of the nature of punishments I like the concept of natural consequences. Part of the difficulty i see with high school students is that they have no understanding that what they do has real consequences, no understanding of the problems they are creating for themselves later in life by their actions now. I think that if you use procedures like timeouts and spanking wisely and consistently, explaining sympathetically that it is the consequence for the specific action, it can be very loving and very effective.

August 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commentergwyneth

[...] to “discipline” their child. But often when they say discipline, they mean spanking or punishing. However, the word discipline means to teach. That is what parents need to do. They need to guide [...]

[...] punishment in schools and 23 have banned spanking everywhere, including in the home and another 20, including Canada, are considering bans.  It talks about the fact that the United Nations has set 2009 as a goal [...]

[...] What are the four reasons I listed why punishment isn’t effective? I listed them in new reason why punishment doesn’t work: the law. [...]

A few years ago New Zealand made it illegal to physically assault a child, and I was surprised that it was still legal in Australia (where I live). I did a bit of reading on the subject, and one of the interesting things I learned was that countries who brought in this type of legislation decades ago are now seeing a lower incidence of violent crime that appears to correspond to the change in the laws.

As far as the state "interfering with parenting", I think it is entirely appropriate for the state to mandate the rights of the child. Unless assault is illegal, parents will still think that physical punishment is ok.

June 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLara

[...] to “discipline” their child. But often when they say discipline, they mean spanking or punishing. However, the word discipline means to teach. That is what parents need to do. They need to guide [...]

I found your blog via Blog Carnival and really like this post!

I'm an Attachment Parenting mother (though I do fail from time to time!) and agree that when "discipline" is based around punishment - the goal is completely lost. I very much agree with letting natural consequences occur when appropriate (RE: you don't wear your jacked on a cold day, you're cold!) and allowing kids to learn from their own mistakes when possible. I believe that children raised with respect being shown to them (to their bodies and their minds) will show much respect to themselves and others as they grow. This keeps them from all kinds of trouble!

Such as with the girl that took her father to court - she'd likely never had inappropriately used the internet in the first place if she had high respect for herself, and she definitely would not have done something as disrespectful as taking a parent to court if there was a firm, loving relationship in place.

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMandy

[...] need to “discipline” their child. But often when they say discipline, they mean spanking or punishing. However, the word discipline means to teach. That is what parents need to do. They need to guide [...]

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