By John Stein

Date Posted: Tuesday, 8 June 2010


John Stein has always worked in human services. He started off as a police officer, before becoming a community organizer while he worked on his undergraduate degree in psychology. He has an M.Ed in Social Restoration and is a Certified Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. He has directed programs for both adults and children in corrections, residential treatment, and inpatient and outpatient mental health settings in Pennsylvania and Louisiana. He is the author of “Residential Treatment of Adolescents and Children: Issues, Principles, and Techniques”, 1995, Nelson-Hall, Chicago. Since his retirement six years ago, he has presented numerous workshops for parents and professionals, has written several articles on children’s issues and he travels widely.




People who have anything to do with children today–parents, teachers, care workers, therapists–are bombarded with messages about the importance of being consistent with discipline.  It seems as if that’s the most important thing to do.  Tell children in advance what the consequences will be, then follow through consistently.  Find something children like, an activity, a privilege, anything, and take it away, each and every time misbehaviour occurs.  At times, it seems that it is the only thing adults have to do to teach children to behave.  After all, it’s science – behavioural science.  And just plain old common sense.

The word ‘punishment’ is rarely used.  Punishment sounds so primitive.  Providing consequences sounds scientific, perhaps even therapeutic, as in “Behaviour Therapy.”

For children who have problems with their behavior despite consistent consequences, there are diagnoses and medications to treat them.

Meanwhile, there have been a number of news articles and features recently about brain imaging studies of the pre-frontal cortex.  It’s the part of the brain responsible for things such as moral judgement, understanding rules of social conduct, associating cause and effect, anticipating consequences, and judgement.  The studies show that it’s the last part of the brain to develop.  It is still immature in most adolescents; for most, it does not mature until about the age of 25.  Some of the articles have a forensic perspective, arguing that teenagers should not be held as responsible as adults for their behavior because of the limitations of their as yet not-fully-developed brain.

I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a connection.  Is it possible that the pre-frontal cortex is slow to develop because not enough adults are asking children to use it?  Don’t expect them to use it?  Don’t teach them to use it?  Is it possible that this area of the brain does not develop fully until children reach the age where adults are no longer imposing consequences so freely?  Until they are finally faced with having to deal with the real consequences of their choices and their behaviour?

I think back to a time before Behaviourism became so influential, when I was growing up.  Adults were not nearly so consistent with discipline in those days.  Rather, they were remarkably consistent with expectations.

To be sure, we had our punishments.  “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” was the operant philosophy, and spanking was generally accepted.  But most adults took this to mean that they should not hesitate to punish when they felt that it was necessary, not that it was necessary every time children had a problem with their behavior.  We also had standing in the corner,  restrictions, getting sent to our rooms, staying after school, and detention.  But such punishments were rare, reserved for times when we did something that was really bad.  They were rarely the first response of adults when we misbehaved, and rarely the only response.  (There were, of course, exceptions–those adults who relied on punishment more often than others.)

Instead, adults–parents, teachers, other adults in the community–tended to talk to us.  They taught us what behaviour was expected and why it was important.  When necessary, they taught us how to do it.  Once they felt we understood, they expected us to behave.  They didn’t feel the need to tell us what they would do to us if we didn’t.

When we had a problem, adults would “correct us.”  Correcting us was basically the same approach–they talked to us.  They helped us to understand what was wrong with our behaviour, how our behavior affected other people, how it made them feel, how it made them feel about us.  They taught us to look at people’s faces and how their expressions showed how they felt.  They taught us about fairness.  They taught us to be aware of how people were responding to the behaviour of others, including ourselves. When we did something dumb, they helped us to see very clearly just how dumb it was.   When we caused someone a problem for which we should be ashamed, they made sure we felt shame.

When they felt we had “learned our lesson,” very often there was no punishment.  Learning our lesson meant that we understood what we had done wrong and why it was wrong, that we felt appropriate shame and remorse, and that we were willing to make some effort to correct any problems we may have caused.

In short, adults were very good at making us feel responsible for our behaviour, responsible for the choices we made and for the problems we caused.  Many times, spankings or other punishment would have been easier.  Once you’ve been punished, you don’t have to feel guilty or that you have to make amends.

At times, they used the same approach when we had done well, helping us to understand how our behaviour had helped both others and ourselves.  They helped us learn to feel good when we had done something good.

Let’s look at this approach from a behavioural perspective.  Psychologists tell us that behavior is controlled by it’s consequences.  Specifically:
1. Behaviour that receives reinforcement is likely to be repeated.
2. Behaviour that does not receive reinforcement is likely to extinguish.
3. Behaviour that receives punishment may be suppressed whenever punishment is available, to resume whenever punishment is not available.
4. Punishment is not effective when behaviour is receiving reinforcement.
5. Punishment is not an effective way to change behaviour.

What adults did was to teach us how our behaviour met or failed to meet our social needs–things such as our needs for approval, acceptance, respect, our needs to be liked or admired.  When children understand these needs and how their behaviour affects getting these needs met, they are more likely to behave in ways that get these needs met, less likely to engage in behaviours that interfere with getting these needs met.  When children perceive that their behaviour results in getting these needs met, their behaviour is reinforced; when children perceive that their behaviour fails to get these needs met, their behaviour is not reinforced.  In time, such behaviour is likely to undergo extinction.  In other words, teaching children about the social consequences of their behaviour, teaching them to perceive and understand these natural consequences of their behavior, is a behaviourally sound approach.

There were, of course, occasions when adults saw fit to punish us.  But those occasions were rare (relatively).  It was not “consequences,” it was punishment–they knew it and we knew it.  It didn’t happen every time we messed up.  Consequently, on those occasions when adults felt the need to punish us, it really got our attention.  It made us take a really close look at the decisions we had made, what we had done, and the results of what we had done.  The real consequences of our behaviour.

Now let’s look at the contemporary behavioural approach in which adults strive to provide consistent consequences for children’s behaviour.  Adults may call them “consequences,” but to children, it feels like punishment.

First, providing consequences does not teach children about other consequences of their behaviour.  Rather, it is likely to distract them from the other consequences of their behaviour.  It teaches only that adults will provide consequences when they know about misbehaviour.  Second, punishment is not an effective way to change behavior.  It does not cause extinction, it merely suppresses behavior temporarily, when punishment is available.  When there are no adults around, there is not likely to be any punishument; behaviours that had been suppressed by punishment resume.  Third, punishment does not teach responsibility.  I have worked with professionals who seemed to believe that children’s accepting responsibility for their behaviour amounted to nothing more than admitting it and serving the consequences.  Very often, the consequences adults imposed prevented children from doing anything to make amends, as when Time Out or room restrictions prevented children from cleaning up a mess they had made or even from apologizing for the harm they had caused another.

Fourth, punishment is not effective for behaviours that have received reinforcement.  The popular “Time Out” procedure is supposed to remove children from reinforcement possibly provided by peers.  But when children perceive, accurately or mistakenly, that their peers approved of their behaviour, the behaviour has already received reinforcement.  When children seek to retaliate against adults, to make them angry, punishment only serves to communicate that they were successful in making adults angry, reinforcing whatever they had done to retaliate.

And finally, over-reliance on punishment has undesirable side effects.  Children who are focused too heavily on avoiding punishment quickly learn ways to avoid punishment other than behaving, such as lying and sneaking and blaming others.  Second, punishment interferes with relationships with authority figures–it is not a strategy that enhances relationships.  Third, punishment does not teach empathy–it is not an empathetic response.  Empathy is necessary for shame and guilt.  Moreover, punishment tends to relieve guilt.  Fourth, punishment does not teach responsibility for behavior, only for serving the punishment.  Fifth, punishment can contribute to emotional problems, as when angry children believe they are being punished for being angry and begin to think that it is wrong for them to feel angry. Then, when they find themselves feeling angry, they feel they deserve to be punished for getting angry.  Finally, punishment can contribute to impulsive behaviour, as when no adults are around to provide punishment and children have not learned to think about other consequences.  Such children are especially vulnerable to their impulses and peer pressure.

One final point.  It is not possible to be “consistent with discipline” for many serious behaviours, such as theft, sexual behaviours, smoking, and other substance abuse.  Adults can only be consistent with discipline for behaviours about which they know.  When children engage in such behaviors with the goal of not getting caught, each time they succeed in not getting caught (i.e., achieve their goal), their success reinforces their behavior.  The occasional punishment when they do get caught may be especially ineffective.

Clearly, punishment, no matter what adults may call it or how consistent they may be, is not a behaviorally sound strategy.

That’s why a relational approach is so much more effective–establishing relationships with children, then using the relationship to teach, to empower children to understand their world, make decisions, and evaluate consequences.  Teaching them self-control instead of trying to control them with external controls.

Many of the children who come to the attention of Child and Youth Care workers are those who have not done well with the consistent consequences of contemporary behavioural approaches, even after being diagnosed and medicated.  How many children have I seen or heard about who feel (too often accurately) that no one likes them, neither adults nor their peers, and do not understand why?  They think it’s because of their race, their looks, their clothing, perhaps where they come from.  They have no clue that it is about their behaviour and that it is within their power to change it.  And how many children have I seen who, once someone helped them understand, said, “I never thought about that,” or more sadly, “No one ever talked to me like this before”?  How many more thought it?

Avoiding punishment may sometimes be a good reason to behave well.  It is seldom the best reason.

I love it when you help them understand and you see a light go on in their eyes.

Just maybe we might begin to stimulate the development of that pre-frontal cortex before children grow up.