A father recently told me about a problem he has: blowing up at his kids. “I just lose it. I yell and scream, I’m stressed out, and I make threats. I don’t mean it. I hate that I do it. But you know… when it’s over they apologize to me and they act better. It seems to work.”
He’s not alone. Many parents notice that when they have an angry reaction that crosses the line, the kids suddenly seem to fall in line. It’s hard not to notice, and it is why harsh punishments have been around so long. While mild punishments, what people usually call “consequences,” can be useful and are generally accepted, very harsh punishments can be tempting because they seem so effective.
But they only seem that way. The appearance of effectiveness is so common that I call it the punishment illusion. Yelling, lecturing, and spanking appear to work in the moment, but it is just a magic trick of the laws of behavior. Once you know how the trick is done, you won’t fall for it again.
There are three lines of evidence to support this. First is the behavioral research on punishment, second is the psychological research on spanking, and finally another line of evidence comes from an unlikely branch of science, statistics.
In this post I’ll give an overview of the first line of evidence.
Yelling, lecturing, and spanking appear to work in the moment, but it is just a magic trick of the laws of behavior.
Here come the Behaviorists
When folks think of psychology they often think of Freud and his cigars, laying on couches and free-associating, or talking about your mother. But when psychologists think of psychology they are much more likely to think of someone like B.F. Skinner.
Skinner was part of a wave of psychologists in the last century that upended traditional psychology by turning the focus of the field from internal subjective states to observable behaviors. When this happened psychology became much more scientific.
Once we began focusing only on what we could observe, psychologists could suddenly measure things and make predictions. It changed everything. We could start to test what actually works to change behavior. We could actually put age-old carrots and sticks to the test and find out once and for all if they really worked.
And you know what? They found out. Those behaviorists discovered a tremendous amount in a short amount of time, and though their approach and findings are not perfect or complete, the impact of their discoveries are still echoing through schools, legal institutions, and parenting blogs like this one.
As a side note, psychologists like Skinner used that information to do all kinds of fascinating, and sometimes bizarre, stuff, like teach pigeons how to play ping pong. Really. Just for fun here is a little video of him showing off his pigeon prodigies:
This is the sort of things geeky psychologists like me love.
After years of research and insightful discoveries Skinner came to a simple conclusion about punishment:
“A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment” (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1972).
What Skinner found is that punishment doesn’t work the way we think it does. We think it teaches the person not to do the act they are being punished for, but in fact it usually only teaches one how to avoid getting punished in the future. Another problem is that punishments don’t help the person learn what behaviors they should do in place of the problem behavior.
Other behaviorists came along after Skinner and built upon his work, and they essentially came to the same conclusion. Again and again, when studied under rigorous conditions punishment was a very ineffective way of changing behavior. Skinner’s core conclusion has remained essentially unchanged.
So why does it look so effective in the moment? What the behavioral research found was a real revelation: punishment results in immediate compliance in the moment, but not in the long run. While spanking a child for hitting his sister stops him from doing it immediately, it does not decrease the likelihood that he’ll do it a week from now.
In other words, harsh punishment doesn’t change behavior, it suppresses it.
But here is what harsh punishments do increase the likelihood of: that he will hit his sister without his parents seeing it. That is the magic trick, the punishment illusion. From the parent’s point of view behavior changed and became positive because they no longer see it. But nothing could be farther from the truth. What the parent is seeing is likely shallow conformity to rules in the moment, not positive new behavior.
And this is the biggest problem with punishment in general, it does not work to do the very thing parents want most: to teach kids to do the right thing. Instead, it encourages kids to engage in behaviors that help them avoid getting punished. Ironically, these are often the same behaviors for which they get punished (lying, blaming others, sneaking).
So how do you teach kids to do the right thing instead of just avoiding punishment? What the behaviorists found was that it was positive reinforcement, or rewards for good behavior, that are the thing that creates the biggest and most lasting change. This is intuitive if you think about it. All around you, every day, the world is filled with small reinforcements that nudge us into particular behaviors. Everything from getting a smile from a stranger to reward points for shopping at certain stores to getting a bonus at work for doing a good job. The script of our behavior is constantly under revision by the promise of rewards.
This is why schools now use sticker charts instead of paddles and why many countries are outlawing the harshest forms of punishments for kids. The science is clear. If you want lasting positive behavior change, you need to focus more on reinforcing positive behavior instead of punishing negative behavior.
If you know a child that is acting sneaky, lying, or misbehaving take a page from the behaviorists and reduce the amount of harsh punishment. Instead, focus your energy on catching good behaviors and reinforcing them. You may be surprised to see that less punishment and more reinforcement can result in better behavior. With some planning and understanding of how behavior changes, parents can not only avoid using harsh punishment, but make sure that how they react to misbehavior does not accidentally erode the qualities of character parents want to see in their children.
Want to learn more about alternatives to punishment? Contact Dr. Ron for a FREE 30 minute online parent coaching session!