Punishment: A Tool, Not a Weapon
April 1974

“Punishment: A Tool, Not a Weapon,” Ensign, Apr. 1974, 47

Disciplining Children: Some Points of View


A Tool, Not a Weapon

Punishment either involves the infliction of something we don’t like or the withdrawal of something we do like. But because both forms of punishment are disagreeable, we assume that once behavior is punished it is less likely to happen again. However, that assumption isn’t always correct.

Any parent who has tried to change a child’s behavior by scolding him, spanking him, or by removing his privileges shouldn’t be surprised when the child exhibits some unwanted side effects—such as tension, sulking, or verbal abuse.

A person who is punished may even develop an actual illness or physiological disorder.

Furthermore, once punishment is removed, misbehavior tends to recur unless the punishment has been extremely intense. These extreme forms of punishment should be avoided in raising children, since cases have been recorded where children have stopped talking for weeks, months, or years following severe punishment by a parent.

So, why do we punish?

The principal reason is probably because we are rewarded for doing it. It is the disturbing action of others that we most frequently punish. The immediate result of such punishment is that the disturbing behavior stops. For instance, children are running around the house while the mother has a headache. She finally explodes, yelling, “I want everyone to be quiet this very minute!” Silence follows.

The mother finds the momentary stillness a great relief and has been rewarded for yelling. However, when alternatives of going outside or into another area of the house are not available to the children, they will be back at it shortly. But what will mother do this time?

Mother is being trained to be a shouter. Worse yet, she is also teaching her children how to yell and punish.

Another situation in which parents are often trapped is in assuming certain punishments are perceived by the child as punishment. Some children are so deprived of adult attention that they may “work” for a spanking. The spanking, then, is not a “punishment” for that child, but is attention.

Other parents follow punishment with a reward, and the child soon learns this relationship. An example of this is a parent who, after spanking his child, explains how sorry he was to have had to do it and then takes the child for an ice cream soda. The point is that this is often the only situation where the child gains such attention, so he will soon learn to get attention by first working for and then going through the punishment. Self-abusive (masochistic) behavior is often developed in this way.

Another negative effect of punishment is that the setting itself in which the punishment is applied may become punishing. A child who is thrown from a horse may react toward all horses with fear. If an adult attempts to place the child back on the horse, but discontinues because the child screams, the child’s screaming is rewarded by his being taken away from the frightening situation (the horse), and his fear of horses remains.

Many fathers who have had to punish their children after coming home from work have sadly found that the children have learned to avoid them. In such cases the father has been associated with punishment instead of love and strength.

The negative effects of punishment are clear. But should punishment alter an individual’s behavior in every situation? I do not wish to be the advocate of never using punishment, but there are situations in which natural punishers affect an individual’s behavior in a very positive way. For instance, when a child burns himself on a hot stove, he learns from the experience.

Why should “natural” punishment work in such a situation? The reason is that when an individual discovers an alternate way to behave in a situation without getting punished, he will cease to behave the way that punishes him. This occurs even with mild punishments. The procedure is even more effective when the punishment is delivered immediately following the action. The difficulty for many is that they don’t know how to perform the alternative behavior.

Take an incident in the second-grade classroom of Mrs. Jones. Billy has already become the school terror, at seven years of age. Mrs. Jones tries to give most of her praise and attention to children in the class who complete the assignments and are cooperative, but Billy learned long ago that he could gain a great deal more of the teacher’s time by misbehaving. In this case, punishment by verbal reprimand for showing off is ineffective and may, in fact, be the attention that Billy is working for.

A successful alternative for punishing this child is difficult to find because of his severe academic deficit. Billy needs to find a situation where he can learn academic skills or where he may excel in some other area to derive the praise and attention he seeks. If he doesn’t his life may be full of more serious punishers, for the seven-year-old clown may become the 17-year-old delinquent.

For Billy, punishment is not the answer. He requires love and a great deal of attention for his good qualities; in fact, punishment alone should never be used without rewards to encourage good action.

It is important for adults who punish others to ask themselves whether they are interacting in a positive way. Parents need to remember they are not only influencing the way their children act, but are also teaching their children how to be parents. Do you want your child to become a punitive person?

Parents need the self-control not to use punishment only as a weapon, but also to use it as a tool for achievement of good behavior.

  • Dr. Peine is an assistant professor of psychology at Western Michigan University. He serves as scoutmaster in Kalamazoo Ward, Lansing Michigan Stake.

Illustrated by Phyllis Luch