008 – Chapter 1, Part 4

What We Know About Punishment (continued)

6.  Punishment often actually increases behaviors it is meant to diminish.

Frequently I have had a parent come into my office and say something like:

Joshua pinched his little sister hard enough to leave a red mark. I got so mad I spanked him until I felt bad myself. But, the next day he went back and did the same darn thing again! I sometimes wonder if something is wrong with the kid. I just know he knows better!

If you think about it, the ideas that “something is wrong” with the child and that “I just know he knows better” are contradictory. Experience tells us that the parent is almost always correct in asserting that the child really does “know better.” I have actually seen children, out of view of their parents, mouthing word for word what the parents were saying they had told the children at home. It is not that they don’t know. And it is not that there is “something wrong.” I have treated individuals with severe disturbance, and I have never seen anyone disturbed enough not to attempt to avoid pain.

But then, why would the child do the same thing that just led to severe punishment? The answer is that there is something positive in it for the child, something gained, which is more important than avoiding the pain or inconvenience of the punishment.

Though parents typically don’t notice it, whatever pain and inconvenience punishment causes for their children, they are always mixed with other factors that actually may work against their intended goal. These include the attention that the child receives from the parent who is doing the punishing.

The serious and chronic childhood illness of their ten-year-old son placed severe demands on the parents. In the middle of a family session, his otherwise quiet five-year-old brother suddenly asked, “Daddy, you know when I was little and always pitched fits at you?” Assured that his father remembered, the boy asked, “You know why I did that? I did it because then you would spank me. That way I knew I was part of the family.” In this simple fashion, which brought tears to the eyes of the rest of us there, this little boy demonstrated how far children may go to meet their needs to be noticed and to feel important.

In any interaction between parents and children, including those involving punishment, there may be other ways in which children’s needs are met. Just as one example, a child who is caught up in intense sibling rivalry might well accept being punished along with the sibling in order to gain satisfaction from hurting the sibling who is seen as unfairly favored by the parent. This means that inappropriate behavior is reinforced even though reinforcing such behavior is exactly the opposite of the parents’ best intentions.

7.  When punishing, parents may cede control to their children.

Child abuse is a serious problem in our society. Working in this field, though, I have always been struck by how really rare it is to come across parents who actually derive pleasure from abusing their children. Many parents who mistreat their children were abused as children themselves and act out of their frustrations because all they know how to do is react aggressively.

Think about what that means. When parents end up so frustrated with their children that they verge on abuse, the children are controlling the adults, rather than the other way around. Parents get into this situation not because they carefully plan it out but because they don’t know what else to do. In that situation children may have a real sense of control or at least recognize the extra attention they receive. Thus, while parents take actions that they hope will stop behaviors they don’t like, they end up instead reinforcing the very behaviors that they want their children not to do. Even parents who are not abusive but rely on punishment for discipline may unintentionally relinquish control to their children if they act contrary to their own values and standards.


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