The Idea of Punishment

After taking a first look at how rewards are supposed to work, we now will do the same with punishment. Like rewards, punishment requires certain basic conditions to work effectively in controlling children’s behavior. For one, the punishment must be felt by the controllee as depriving, noxious, denying, unwanted, injurious etc., basically, it must be aversive to the controllee and antagonistic to his or her needs. In fact, punishment must be aversive enough to bring about elimination of the unwanted behavior. Also, the controllee must be unable to escape from the punishing situation or locked in the relationship because of dependency on the controller to provide what the controllee needs.

Controlling the child by using or threatening unpleasant or painful consequences also goes by a variety of names: behavior modification, aversive conditioning, avoidance training, behavior management, disciplining. No matter what it is called, there are two ways punishment can work: First, the adult can threaten to use punishment if the child does not change his or her behavior. If you don’t stop playing video games right now, then you can’t have any ice cream for dessert. Second, the adult can actually administer the punishment as a consequence of some unacceptable behavior already performed by the child: you disobeyed me and came home late again, so now you can’t go out for a week.

The basic principle of punishment is: behavior that brings punishment tends to be discontinued. However, as we will explore in detail in future editions of this newsletter, reality isn’t nearly as simple and straightforward as that. There are conditions and complexities that make this method just as difficult to administer as the use of rewards. Some of these factors are the timing of the punishment (it should come immediately after the unacceptable behavior) and the question of intensity (if the punishment isn’t strong enough it won’t work, yet if it’s too severe the child will escape or stop trying altogether).

Finally, control by punishment can have very serious side effects, it can damage the adult-child relationship and of course it can harm the child physically or psychologically or both, something most parents would prefer to avoid.