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Should You Punish Your Kids?

Imagine this scenario:

You overhear an argument between your two daughters going on in the next room. When you go in to see what’s happening you witness your older daughter pulling her younger sister’s hair. In the heat of the moment you say, “I’m sending you to your room until dinner time for pulling your sister’s hair!”

Is that the best way to teach her not to hurt her sister?

Punishment focuses your child on the consequence of her behavior rather than on the hurt her behavior caused. If you talk to your daughter about how she hurt her sister and how it feels to get hurt, that will help her build empathy, rather than feel bad about herself. You can also check in with your younger daughter— is she hurt? Model empathy for both of them, instead of reinforcing your older daughter’s behavior with negative consequences.

Imagine this scenario:

The first time you discovered your middle school age son took money from your wallet to buy snacks at the corner store, you requested that he ask you if he needs money. The second time he did it, you grounded him for a night. Now you suspect that he’s done it a third time even though when you ask him, he denies it. You ground him again, this time for the entire weekend.

Is grounding your son the best way to teach him not to take money from your wallet without asking?

Research that’s been done on kids’ moral development indicates that to avoid future punishment, they are likely to sneak and lie in order to escape being caught, meaning that grounding your son could actually encourage him to be dishonest.

Because you’re their authority figure, it’s a case of “might makes right” even when your kids thinks their punishment is unfair, or isn’t warranted. This “power over” dynamic means moral choices may become more difficult when they are in a position of power. Also, if your son sees your punishment as a “way to make him stop behaving badly” then he isn’t taking responsibility for his behavior and the choice he made to take money from your wallet. Engaging with him about his decision to take your money may result in a more meaningful outcome.

Frequently, consequences like yelling, shaming, grounding, physical force result in your child only remembering the consequence, and his/her anger at you for imposing the punishment. GIving your child the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and make proper amends makes a much more lasting impact. I know this from personal experience. One spring, before I realized it, my son had used my iTunes account information to buy movies online. Over the course of a couple of months the bill added up to over a hundred dollars. I let my son know how much it hurt to discover he was using my account without my permission, and I laid out the expectation that his summer earnings would go towards paying me back. I could see that he felt genuinely badly about his behavior. And, the opportunity to make amends for his choices reinforced the valuable lesson learned.

Alfie Kohn, the author of the 2006 book, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason suggests parents learn to shift their idea of discipline from a “doing to” (punishing) to a “working with” dynamic. Discipline is really about guidance. He recommends imagining how things look from your kids’ point of view and making your relationship with your child, and mutual trust, paramount. You can read his answers parents’ questions about punishment and discipline in the New York Times article, Punishing Children With Love.

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