Does Punishment Effectively Change Behavior?

Could punishment be a way of the past?

Have you ever felt simple irritation - or fury - when a kid does something you don't like? Historically, punishment has been one main way parents and teachers deal with such behaviors. However, Laura Markham, child psychologist and author of, shares that punishment doesn't necessarily lead to long lasting change. Additionally, it can have a host of negative effects that lead to dishonesty, rebellion and disconnection in the parent-child relationship. In place of punishment, Markham suggests positive parenting, which includes parent self-regulation, connection and coaching.

Define Punishment

Punishment seeks to impose a negative experience on the child so the child will feel bad and make a different choice in the future. Sometimes punishment takes the form of spanking, switching or paddling - which is still legal in schools in several states, according to The Center for Effective Discipline. Punishment also takes the form of time outs, grounding, shaming and other negatively instilled consequences to withhold something from or create a negative experience for a child.

Fear, Distrust and Dishonesty

Parents may feel punishment is necessary to teach children, but it teaches more than just one lesson. Markham shares that punishment leads to fear that may influence a child to not trust parents and be dishonest to avoid punishment. Instead of teaching a child right from wrong, punishment may teach the child the opposite - how to avoid being caught doing something wrong. Punishment may not change behavior in the short term, and can negatively affect behavior in the long term. Punishment can create distrust between parent and child because kids don't feel they can rely on parents for loving guidance.

Leads to External Motivation

Parents want kids to be accountable for their choices. Markham suggests that punishment doesn't lead to accountability because it reinforces the need for external factors to influence behavior. A spank may stop a child from mouthing off. However, the child is probably still doing it in her head, and she isn't offered an alternative for dealing with how she thinks and feels, which nurtures personal accountability and choice. Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman, parent educators and authors who write at, also share that a child subjected to punishment is more likely to focus on you, your anger and the punishment than the value of the lesson you seek to teach.

Practical Alternatives

Markham offers many viable alternatives to punishment that parents can use to transition to a more effective way of teaching. Some of them include learning how to regulate yourself emotionally so you can model the ability to choose your response to what you feel. You can also let your child solve problems as you help him discover choices, collaborate with your child for win/win solutions or invite cooperation with the way you ask your child to do something. Focus on the relationship instead of discipline in moments of defiance, get to the root of problems, use natural consequences and cultivate trust and connection with special time together.