Reasons to Rethink Your Discipline Approach

There are many reasons for not imposing punishment as discipline to promote responsibility with young people. Among them are: (1) a young person is not an adult with just a younger body, (2) hurting a child in order to instruct or harming a young person in order to teach is contrary to all we know about the brain and learning, (3) an imposed punishment satisfies the punisher more than it changes the behavior of the person being punished, (4) an imposed punishment promotes adversarial relationships and resistance, and perhaps most important, (5) imposing a punishment is not nearly as effective as eliciting a consequence or a procedure to change behavior.

In almost all cases, rewards and punishments need to be intensified over time in order to maintain the same level of results. More and more treats must be offered—or conversely, more threats or sanctions must be applied—to induce young people to continue to act in the way the manipulator desires. Not only does this reward-punishment mentality become progressively more objectionable as the child grows older, but it also inevitably delivers fewer and fewer successes as well. Anyone who works with adolescents, in particular, knows that it gets tougher and tougher to manipulate teens as they become less enamored with small treats and as they shift their reference group—and their desire for approval—from parents to peers.

Most young children can be enticed easily into compliance by an attractive reward, and there are youth who would prefer to take the pain of punishment rather than take the time to make difficult decisions and exert self-control. However, by using rewards and punishments, we unintentionally give children an easy way out—at the expense of their development and maturation. Rather than empowering our youngsters with responsibility, we are teaching them that temporary compliance will get them off the hook.

Although rewards and punishments might give children direction, they all too often have serious repercussions as children grow into young adults with less decision-making experiences under their belt. Parents are not around when peer pressure influences young people to take up tobacco, experiment with drugs, or do a whole host of other things that are unsafe or destructive. Such behavior induces stress on parents and, in the long term, on the young person as well.