This article is part 1 in a 3-part series on punishment.

“So you don’t believe in disciplining your children?”

I’ve heard this from many friends, students, and neighbors when I tell them that punishment usually doesn’t work in the way most parents think.

This question is also assuming that discipline and punishment are the same thing. They are not. Punishment is a form of discipline. Just like all apples are fruit, not all fruit are apples.

“So you just let your kids do whatever they want?”

Yet another common question from doubting parents when I share the research on punishment. The assumption is that there are only two parenting philosophies: punitive or permissive. This is what we might call a false dichotomy.

“How can you have any order in your home without rules?”

Come on people! All I’m saying is that punishment is usually ineffective in producing what we really want in our children: character. Minimizing the frequency, the intensity, and the duration of your punishments doesn’t mean there are not rules, standards, and expectations in your home. Parenting expert Alfie Kohn explains that kids need structure, but they don’t need to be controlled.  

“But don’t your children have to learn consequences? How are you going to prepare them for the real world?”

Again, a sincere question but also coming from a false premise. The premise is that punishing children will teach them about right and wrong when in reality, it often teaches them about power and self-interest. More on this in a moment.

I recently watched a video on Facebook of a boy who had to hold up his school books over his head for an incredibly long time because he disrespected his teacher. His mother made him repeat phrases such as: “I won’t disrespect my teacher.” “I love school.” “I don’t want to be homeless.” The entire time he was sobbing due to the pain in his arms. (And probably because of the soulless way in which his parents found amusement in their creative torture).

The false premise: The way you teach respect in the “real world” is to cause them pain and discomfort until they act respectful.

I purposefully emphasized the word act because punishment typically is great at temporarily fixing behavior. Children learn to simply perform the desired act so they won’t get in trouble again. But hearts haven’t changed. Morals weren’t internalized. Character wasn’t built.

Perhaps you think that this mother’s punishment is a great idea because it is related to the “crime.” One might even call it a logical consequence. After all, he mentioned his teacher and he was holding his textbooks above his head.

But in the “real world,” no one will require you to hold your spouse’s purse or wallet over your head when you say something you didn’t mean in a weak moment. You won’t have to hold your children’s bin of toys above your head when you let your stress get the better of you. And I doubt that chanting “I love my job” over and over when you’ve offended your McDonald’s coworker will get you pumped for your next shift.

What world are we raising our children on?

Ok. Maybe you think that this punishment was extreme. Maybe you think that putting your toddler or preschooler in time-out when they fight is a much more humane punishment. While it probably is more humane, it still doesn’t work . . . at least in the ways that matter.

The common assumption is that taking away a privilege will develop children who don’t fight with their siblings, or that grounding your teen will get him to become responsible. We parents may even attribute our good traits or character to the punishments we received growing up. For more on how your own upbringing gets in the way of how you see things read: Did You Really Turn Out OK?

Teachers and parents assume that clever consequences will change their child for the better and teach the intended lesson. Research and life experience tells us that this is simply not true. If what we really hope for is the formation of morals (a knowledge of right and wrong) and character (the part of us that dictates our desires, thoughts, and actions) then we need to discipline in ways that are consistent with our long term goals for our children.

If you are appropriately skeptical, let me share just a small snapshot from the research. One study found that “punishment is ineffectual over the long term as a technique for eliminating the kind of behavior toward which it is directed.”

Another study concluded that “parents who punish rule-breaking behavior in their children at home often have children who demonstrate higher levels of rule-breaking when away from home.”

Rather than asking: “What is right?” or “What kind of person I do I want to become?” or “How does ________ feel when I act this way?” Punishment typically leads children to ask:

“What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it?”

This creates self-interest rather than fostering a sense of morality.

“Hey, punishment works!”

Dr. Jane Nelson, author of Positive Discipline, cautioned us to “beware of what works.” It may work in the moment but with hidden costs. Dr. Nelson then shared the common long term consequences of the consistent use of punishment:

Resentment: “This is unfair. I can’t trust adults.”

Revenge: “They are winning now, but I’ll get even.”

Rebellion: “I’ll do just the opposite to prove I don’t have to do it their way.”


  • Sneakiness — “I won’t get caught next time.”
  • Reduced self-esteem — “I am a bad person.”

If punishment is your go-to method when your children misbehave, it doesn’t make you evil or a poor parent. It simply means that there is more learning and growing for us parents.

“So what should I do instead?”

Read part 2: Teaching vs. Punishment: Discipline Lessons from Ping-Pong.


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