Punishing our kids is probably the WORST part of parenting. You know you have to do it. Otherwise, the child will never learn why he or she shouldn’t have done the thing they did. It sometimes hurts to administer these consequences, but you know, in the long run, it will be better for them overall.
The phrase “positive punishment” seems like a strange set of words. How can punishment be a good thing, ever?
Let’s begin by defining positive punishment: It’s when you integrate something to the punishment that will create an undesirable consequence in the hopes it will stop the behavior from happening again in the future.
It is a method of behavior modification that punishes actions, not the child themselves.
Some examples include yelling at your child when they misbehave or when a teacher gives extra homework to students that fail to complete the initial set of tasks assigned to them.
But Why the Word “Positive?”
Well, the word positive in the everyday sense means something inherently good. But in the parenting realm, this is a positive parenting method that serves to modify behavior. It works in accordance with the Skinner theory of operant conditioning.
Here are all four of the positive parenting methods:
- Positive punishment
- Negative Punishment
- Negative Reinforcement
- Positive reinforcement
The methods are broken down into categories based on a couple of factors:
- Are you trying to promote or stop a behavior?
- Are you bringing in something that promotes good behavior (positive) or removing something that promotes bad behavior (negative)?
As you can see, it gets a little confusing here- “positive” things discourage behaviors, and “negative” things encourage behaviors. But you have to think in terms of operant conditioning- in this concept, the terms “negative” and “positive” are not used in the everyday sense.
So, let’s use this opportunity to dive in and show a few examples of positive punishment.
Actions Have Consequences
Kids need to learn early on that their actions have consequences.
Positive punishment need not be something YOU create- it can be the natural outcome of an action the child takes.
For instance, you tell your child not to eat the whole bag of gummy worms because it will make them sick. They do it anyway, and the unpleasant feeling of being sick is the positive punishment associated with their actions.
The same goes for children who touch a hot surface. You tell them over and over again to stay back. They accidentally or purposely touch the stove. The sting and the pain of the burn is enough to show them that going near the hot surface is not a good idea.
It’s Based on Aversiveness
Positive punishment is based on what kids generally don’t like. But your mileage may vary. What some child finds unpleasant might not bother another child.
Here are some examples:
Rules: Kids generally dislike rules. If you have a child that continually misbehaves, adding more rules could cause them to alter their actions.
Work: Plenty of parents use work and chores around the house to punish their child. For example, a kid who draws on the walls using markers or fingerpaints with ketchup on the floor will be forced to clean it up and perhaps do another household cleaning job.
Verbal admonishment: Being reprimanded, yelled at, or scolded by adults is generally unpleasant to kids, and they prefer to avoid it.
Most kids understand what positive punishment is. This method of behavior modification can be helpful, provided it follows the unpleasant behavior immediately. Parents also have to be consistent in their delivery.
You should also use it in conjunction with other behavior modification methods, like positive reinforcement. This way, the child will understand and adapt to varying behaviors.
Can Positive Punishment Have Negative Side Effects?
It can. Spanking is a controversial form of punishment among parents. Some swear by it; others would never use such a method of punishment on their kids.
Spanking could send the signal that aggression is an acceptable method of problem-solving, suggests one study.
At the same time, young children do not have the thinking skills to understand why they should not do something- “I should not say a bad word because it is considered rude,” but they do understand the unpleasantness of a spanking.
That being said, positive punishment has its flaws. Its greatest is that it fails to teach kids a replacement behavior instead of teaching avoidance behavior.
This is beneficial for some things, such as situations involving safety. For example, the child touching a hot stove.
But the problem lies in that parents may have to deliver the punishment multiple times. How many times have you yelled at your child to stop climbing on the couch, only to have them do it again a few minutes later?
It is clear if this is the case that the punishment is not working. Parents also have to be careful that the punishment is not just an outlet to vent their exasperations.
Aside from that, kids know how to push buttons. They are good at finding equally bad behavior unless you can teach them alternatives.
Behaviors Can Be Hidden
Children can learn that by hiding the behavior from you, they might get away with it.
For example, a child could hide a bag of candy under the sofa and eat it when you are out of the room. A teen could get caught smoking cigarettes, experience positive punishment, but engage in the act of smoking cigarettes when parents are not home or around to see them do it.
As you can see, the behavior is not modified and can produce some unhealthy and unwanted consequences.
Negative Punishment/Reinforcement vs. Positive Punishment/Reinforcement
Let’s refresh here: when we talk about behavior modification, positive and negative don’t mean good and bad. Instead, think of it like a math problem: plus and minus. Positive is to add, negative is to take away.
Punishment is something we parents do as a means of eliminating or discouraging a behavior. Reinforcement is something we do to promote a behavior.
Positive punishment happens when we bring in the consequence of an action. This is done to make the behavior’s appeal lessen. For example, you make your child perform more chores after they complain about the ones they are already assigned.
Negative punishment is the removal of something. For example, your child has his video game privileges revoked because he failed to complete his assigned chores.
The outcome of negative punishment is to encourage your child to complete all their chores in a timely manner so they can enjoy their video games later. Having a toddler or young child sit in time out is also an example of negative punishment.
Negative reinforcement’s goal is to take away a stimulus and alter behavior to something productive and appropriate.
For instance, you might tell your child to sweep the kitchen and dining room floors. When they only perform sweeping of one floor, you consistently tell them to go back and sweep the other one. Eventually, to avoid being told, again and again, they just do what they are asked so they can avoid the inconvenience of being interrupted to sweep.
Good Behavior Begins with Clear Expectations
At this point, you have learned that positive punishment can be OK in some scenarios, such as moments when kids have to “learn the hard way.”
For example, we can tell our kids until we turn blue in the face why we should avoid going near the hot stove or why eating excessive amounts of sweets is bad, but some kids won’t understand until they experience it.
That being said, there are ways we can reduce the need for punishment of any kind, starting with establishing clear expectations.
Tell your children upfront how to behave before the situation happens.
For example, you and your toddler are entering the supermarket. You tell her, “Be nice and quiet in the store. Others are trying to shop in peace.”
Or: Your teen wants to go to the park with friends. You let them know they can go, but all homework must be completed and shown to you first.
Why Are We Punishing?
Are we punishing because we are angry at the child and using it as an outlet to vent?
Or are we really intent on changing our child’s behavior?
Parents have to be careful as they implement punishments. It’s best to stop and think about it for a moment before the punishment is given.
Our goal as parents is to teach skills that will assist our children in becoming responsible adults. Punishment is not effective if your child is unable to perform the desired behavior- e.g., sweeping the floor, clearing the table, remaining quiet while in the supermarket.
It can be a bit confusing at first to understand “positive” and “negative” when we think about them in psychological terms, but over time it becomes easy to understand- after all, we live it every day as parents.
Whether you want your child to be better behaved with friends, at school, or with family, we hope this article helped.