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Punishment is Not a Dirty Word

April 2016

Have you ever heard anyone say that rewards and punishments don’t work? Well, those people are just plain wrong, although I acknowledge that some of these people are considered experts in parenting. The fact is that the field of behavior analysis is a robust science that has proven time and again that behavior is all about rewards and punishments (well, except for reflexes – but that’s a whole other conversation). This is simple, unarguable truth backed by limitless research studies. However, the way we define “reward” and “punishment” in behavior analysis is very different from what most people think of when they use these words, and therein lies the rub. I think this is partially why applied behavior analysis just hasn’t become mainstream – our language is misinterpreted and mis-used, even by experts in related fields that have achieved “mainstream” status.

I’m going out on a limb here because “punishment” has become a dirty word. It has been associated with corporal discipline (i.e. physical), shaming, yelling, and other parenting behaviors which we might consider somewhat or downright abusive. I would agree that these are “bad” strategies, and I actively discourage using these techniques to discipline your child. In the lingo of behavior analysis, however, there is no judgment about punishment being good or bad. “Punishment” is simply anything that happens following a given behavior that reduces the chances that the behavior will happen again.

What is important to understand here is that we can’t call it punishment (substitute “discipline” if the word “punishment” has too many negative connotations for you) if it doesn’t work. Said another way, by definition you can only call it “punishment” if it is effective at reducing the frequency, intensity, or duration of the behavior. When I read various experts’ blurbs about their amazing new program, and they say things like, “Punishment doesn’t work!”, I am immediately turned off and skeptical of the effectiveness of their approach. Clearly “experts” who make statements like this are either unaware of or disregardful of the large body of research on what punishment really is. Any real expert in the business of telling parents how to change their children’s behavior should have a working knowledge of the basic vocabulary involved in the science of behavior. They should respect that vocabulary, and use the research to inform their approach. So often it appears that this not the case – so beware!

I am a big fan of punishment in the way that it is defined in the field of behavior analysis. There is something quite compelling about making a decision to only use disciplinary strategies that are actually effective. Selecting the strategy that works for my child, and that feels right to me (i.e. provides a teaching moment and is NOT shaming, is NOT corporal punishment, does NOT involve yelling and screaming) is super important. I like punishment strategies that involve things like taking away privileges for not following through with responsibilities, Time-Out for losing control, and “natural consequences” like cleaning up if you make a mess. Again – they need to be effective for us to call them “punishment” so if you have found that your preferred disciplinary strategies aren’t working, don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are providing the best consequences for the situation. You may want to consider trying something different. As a side note on effective strategies, it is important to note that for entrenched problem behaviors, yelling and screaming doesn’t usually work to change future behavior. Sometimes it does stop the behavior in the moment, and yelling kind of makes us feel like we did something and not just nothing. Unfortunately, this “rewards” us for yelling and screaming (Did I use the word “reward”? Read on!), so we continue to use that as a discipline strategy, whether or not it is effective or feels like the right thing to do.

Here’s another word that behavior analysts use in a different way, “consequences”. Consequences refer to anything that happens following a given behavior that has an impact on that behavior happening again. Consequences can serve to maintain a behavior, reduce the likelihood of it occurring again, or increase the likelihood of it occurring again. When laypeople typically talk about consequences, what they actually mean (if we were talking behavior analysis language) is punishment! Very confusing, I agree.

Let’s review: Consequences are anything that happens after the behavior that impacts the likelihood of the behavior happening again. Punishment is one type of consequence that reduces the frequency, intensity, or severity of the behavior. Rewards, on the other hand, are consequences that happen following a given behavior that make it more likely for the behavior to occur again. When we are looking to change behavior, rewarding (or reinforcing) the behavior that we want to see is actually far more effective than punishing the behavior we don’t want to see. And it feels a lot better! More on that next month.

Dr. Teri Bullis, Ph.D., BCBAI believe that every parent I’ve ever worked with loves their child and is doing the very best that they can. But while parenting is the toughest job anyone will ever have, children don’t come with a “how to” manual. I can provide those “how to” directions, tailored for your unique child and family situation.

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