The Problem With Punishment

For any of you that have watched my course on punishment (free link below) you will know that using punishment to shape behaviour should be a natural part of any learning process and used properly while combining with reinforcement.

Before I dive in to the problem with punishment, let’s review the definition according to behaviour science. Punishment is any consequence that decreases a behaviour over time. This may be as simple as denying attention to unwanted behaviour, such as yelling. It is most effective when paired with opportunities for reinforcement, in this example that would be giving attention when a child speaks in a calm voice.

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Due to your combination of consequences (attention and withholding attention) a child may learn quickly what behaviour is more effective in gaining your attention. Conclusion: your child is more likely to speak calmly because he/she knows that is what gains the most attention from you.

I’m saying all this to be very clear, without punishment, teaching is not possible. That variation between reinforcement and punishment is the essence of learning.

So, now that that is covered; let’s look at the problem with punishment and how to avoid it.

My problem with punishment is when it becomes overused. Sometimes we get caught in the spiral of jumping from punishment to punishment. This may be in response to guilt or fear that we have been overly submissive with our children and now we’re desperate to “take back control” of their behaviour. Or maybe it’s because we’re just not sure how else to handle challenging behaviour…

Problem: overuse


* Children become detached and the consequences lose their effectiveness. (“Meh, I don’t care.”)

* Children associate particular parent/teacher with punishment and stop seeking opportunity for reinforcement. (“Why try? He won’t give me a turn.”)

* Children may become resentful towards parent/teacher. (“She’s always mean to me.”)

* Children may over generalise negative association with activities and feel helpless. (“I’m a failure.”)

* Child’s perception might become distorted and they fail to see their own successes. (“I never win!”)

Once punishment is being overused a child’s mind may become clouded. This means that the learning process is interrupted.

This is why it has become so popular to “Say no to punishment!”, although I prefer the phrase “Say no to shaming, blaming and harming our kids!”

So, what’s the answer? Motivation.

Rather than focusing on punishment and living in a gloom of disappointment and frustration, seek opportunities to create a motivating environment. Once your attention is on motivating children to learn, the need for punishment decreases dramatically.

Link to my punishment training video- Why Most Punishments Don’t Work and What to do Instead 

What are your questions regarding punishment? Have you found this post helpful? Join the conversation at


Guest Post by Behavior Specialist Stephanie Wicker
Stephanie Wicker is a behaviour consultant and therapist in Sydney, Australia. Following thirteen years of working with children and families in various support settings, Stephanie created an in-home behaviour consultancy program and delivers parenting workshops all throughout Australia. She specializes in behaviour analysis and early childhood development. Learn more about the author at
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