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Using Punishments Effectively

At Brandt and Audra's house, beds need to be made before leaving for school. If you fail to make your bed, you go to bed thirty minutes early. The last time that Brandt failed to make his bed was three weeks ago. Audra fails to make her bed about four mornings a week. She goes to bed early each time.

Most parents believe that going to bed early is a good punishment. This seems like a good plan, but look at what is actually happening. This form of punishment works well for Brandt; he avoids the punishment by remembering to make his bed. He has decided that staying up a little later is important.

Going to bed early is not a punishment for Audra. She does not avoid it. Going to bed early has had no effect on her behavior; she is not making her bed. Maybe she likes going to bed early-I certainly do! Another punishment should be used for Audra, something that will change her behavior.

Punishment is a negative consequence. When used properly, punishment eliminates or reduces misbehavior. Using punishment correctly is difficult. It requires consistent follow-through. Too much punishment is harmful; it creates unpleasant feelings and drains energy. Punishment works, but it is not easy to use effectively. Most parents believe that punishing a misbehavior will stop the child from repeating the misbehavior. Sometimes this is true, but sometimes it is not:

"How do you punish your children?"
"I yell."
"How do your children react to your yelling?"
"They don't react. They usually ignore me."
"Then what?"
"I get angry. Sometimes I yell again."
"Do they stop?"
"For a while, maybe."
"What do you try next?"
"Sometimes I spank them."
"How often do you have to spank them?"
"About eight or ten times a day."
Any punishment that is used this often is not working. The misbehavior is not getting better. The children are not listening to the yelling. They are not avoiding the spankings.

Good Punishments Are Seldom Used
A true punishment is one that is seldom used because it is seldom needed. This is punishment's golden rule. Punishment should reduce the need for more punishment; it should decrease the misbehavior. If the misbehavior does not change, then the punishment is not working. Many parents make this mistake, focusing on the punishment rather than the misbehavior. If you punish your child five or six times a day for the same misbehavior, the punishment is not working. If you keep adding to the punishment and the misbehavior continues, the punishment is not working. It is not the punishment that is important but the misbehavior. A punishment must change the misbehavior. If it doesn't, try something else. You may think that yelling, threatening, scolding, and spanking are good punishments. These reactions release your anger, but they are not good punishments; they have little long-term effect on misbehavior. Anger and punishment do not mix.

Do Not Punish When You Are Angry
Linda hurried home one day to take her dog to the vet. When she arrived home, she heard someone in the house. She was ready to run next door and call the police when she heard a giggle. She called out. There was another giggle. She went into her thirteen-year-old daughter's bedroom. Another giggle. Nancie and two friends were hiding in the closet, skipping school. Linda was so angry she could not think straight. All she could say was, "Nancie, it's going to take me and your father a few days to think about how you will be punished for this." Linda did not let her anger get in the way of being rational and making a good judgment. Allowing her daughter to worry for a few days is a pretty good punishment all by itself.

Whenever I do a workshop on punishment, I explain this next point carefully. For many parents, this is an idea with considerable impact. When you punish in anger, you are actually doing two things at the same time-punishing, and reacting with anger. What if your child intended to get you angry? What if your child wanted to get even or retaliate because of something that happened earlier? Seeing you get angry is not a punishment. It is a reward! When you get angry at a misbehavior, you are teaching your child how to have control over your emotional state of mind. You are giving your child power over you. This is a payoff; the misbehavior is reinforced, not punished. As a result, the misbehavior increases. The effects of the punishment are negated by the reward of getting you angry. Some children would trade a swat on the bottom for the power they receive when they have succeeded in getting you angry. The only way to break this cycle of retaliation is to stop punishing with anger. If you find yourself getting angry, walk away. Dispense with your anger first, then confront the misbehavior. Do not let your children push your buttons.

Do not punish when you are angry. Cool off first. The purpose of punishment is to teach your children to behave better in the future, not to get even. Sometimes your children can make you very angry, but this is not the time to hand out punishment. I remember a child who was upset because he was grounded forever. When I spoke with his dad, he explained that the boy had lost some of his tools. He got so angry at his son, he grounded him for the rest of his life. He overreacted.

When you overreact because you are angry, you may say things that you do not mean. You cannot ground a child for life. Do not punish when you are angry. You will be teaching your children that punishment is a form of revenge.

The purpose of punishment is to change a misbehavior and teach better decision making. Punishment is most effective when it is predetermined and planned. Punishment does not work well as an impulsive reaction. When you become angry, you are acting as a model for negative behavior. You will not be teaching your children to make better decisions.



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From How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!. Copyright Sal Severe, 2000. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here or on the book cover. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


August 30, 2014



Keep it hot (or cold)! No one likes cold soup or warm, wilted salad. Use a thermos or ice pack in your child's lunch box to help keep his lunch fresh until it's time to eat.


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