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Rethinking punishment

John Stein

When I was an undergraduate student in the 1960s, psychology was a new and exciting science. Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning was published in English in 1927, less than 40 years before. Skinner had been publishing on operant conditioning for only 30 years. The use of deliberate behavioral interventions by practitioners in private practice and hospitals was just beginning. And the 1962 movie Manchurian Candidate had just thrilled the world with a depiction of the brainwashing of captured American Gi’s who were behaviorally programmed to carry out a political assassination years after their release.

Now, psychology is taught in high schools, the DSM-IV relies on strict behavioral criteria for its diagnoses, and psychiatric hospitals are turning into behavioral health units. Even the foreign policy of the United States seems to be based on behaviorism, with our leaders refusing to talk to leaders of certain countries for fear of rewarding them for bad behavior. Internationally, the UN has been imposing sanctions on countries whose leaders do not behave the way they should.

And experts tell parents to be consistent with discipline, as if that’s the most important thing. They caution parents against using corporal punishment because of the harmful side effects and recommend alternatives such as time out or taking away something children like, implying that these other forms of punishment are without side effects.

But of course, people and their gods have used rewards and punishments throughout history in the attempt to control others.

My concern is that the growing popularity of behaviorism today is leading parents, teachers, and others who work with children to rely increasingly on behavioral interventions, especially on punishment, to the exclusion of other things that have proven more successful over the years in teaching children self-control and responsibility. Adults in our culture have always used punishment with children. But now they seem to be relying on it even more, talking with children less and less. When punishment fails to control children, people look to medication, as if some children cannot be responsible for controlling themselves. And some of my colleagues feel that diagnoses for ADHD and other behavioral problems have been increasing over the years.

At first glance, behaviorism looks like “evidence-based practice.” But behaviorism as practiced today has become an ideology that is based on unexamined assumptions that have little to do with science.

Behavioral science
Behavioral scientists have demonstrated convincingly that behavior is indeed influenced by its consequences. They have done so with carefully controlled experiments in which they study the relationships between specific behaviors and specific consequences that may be pleasant or aversive. They design their experiments carefully to conceal from their subjects that experimenters are manipulating consequences. They want to be sure the behavior of their subjects is the direct result of the experimental stimuli and not the result of interaction between subjects and experimenters.

Some key principles of learning (there are many - it’s not so simple as it looks):

The practice of behaviorism with children
Organisms, including people, even children, tend to learn very quickly from consequences that result directly from their behavior. The only way to change consequences is to change behavior.

When adults use behavioral interventions with children, children know that adults are providing those consequences. (There are always consequences other than those provided by adults. In social situations, they are often more important behaviorally.) The consequences provided by adults cannot occur without the adults who provide them. Rather than depending directly and exclusively on behavior, those consequences depend exclusively on adults. This brings all sorts of social variables into play. Obviously, children can still change these consequences by changing their behavior. But just as obviously, children can also change these consequences by concealing their behavior or by negotiating with adults. Instead of their behavior responding to these consequences, we often find children responding to the adults instead.

Behavioral strategies that rely on adults to provide consequences may lead to undesirable side effects that do not occur when psychologists study behavior experimentally. These side effects can be especially problematic with punishment strategies.

Possible side effects of punishment

1. Lying, sneaking, and deceit. Children can avoid punishment if they don’t get caught.

2. Blaming others. Children can avoid punishment if they can avoid getting blamed. They can either blame someone else, or convince adults that it was not their fault.

3. Lack of responsibility. Taking responsibility for your behavior means more than admitting it and serving the punishment. It means repairing the harm that has been done. Punishment relieves children of the responsibility to repair the harm they have caused.

4. Don’t trust authority. When children are faced with challenges away from home, they usually do the best they know how, then check back with their parents to see whether they did the right thing. Unless they expect to be punished if they did the wrong thing. Then they are less likely to trust their parents with telling them about what happened.

5. See authority figures as adversaries. Punishment tends to create an adversarial relationship between children and adults.

6. Lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt. Punishment tends to communicate that adults don’t care about children's feelings, only their behavior. Children who do not experience empathy are not likely to learn to feel empathy. Empathy is necessary for feelings of remorse and guilt. When there is guilt, punishment tends to relieve it. You don’t have to feel guilty after you've “paid your debt to society.”

7. Resentment and anger. People who are punished often feel hurt and misunderstood, leading to feelings of resentment and anger.

8. Retaliation and aggression. Resentment and anger tend to produce retaliation and aggression, especially when adults model retaliation or aggression when they punish.

9. Tattling. Some people can’t stand to see someone else get away with something for which they have been punished. Some children are always running to their parents about their siblings, or to their teachers about their peers.

10. Threatening and coercing others. Punishment (and even rewards) is a coercive strategy. Children sometimes learn to get what they want with threats and coercion (or by making deals) from adults who use coercive strategies.

11. Rebellion. Punishment (and even rewards) is all about authority and control. People tend to rebel against authority and attempts to control them.

12. Emotional problems. When angry children misbehave, they are preoccupied with their emotions and less aware of their behavior. Punishment sometimes becomes associated with their anger, leading them to believe that it is wrong for them to feel angry. They try their best to suppress their anger, sometimes becoming very good at it. When they get angry despite their best efforts, they feel they deserve to be punished for letting themselves get angry and behave in ways to get the punishment they feel they deserve. When their anger results in horrible scenes, they may even become afraid when they get angry. Fear and anger together produce a highly irrational state that is pathologically resistant to any intervention.

13. Poor self-image and self-esteem. Children tend to see themselves through the eyes of others and to believe that people who deserve to be punished are bad. When important adults think they deserve to be punished, children sometimes believe they deserve it. Consequently, they believe they are bad.

This is where I have a problem with those who tell parents that corporal punishment is bad and recommend other punishment strategies, as if they are not so bad. When children get spanked, they tend to go to their rooms and sulk a bit. A little later, they return to see how their parents are feeling about them. They may try to do something good. Parents tend to accept them back, possibly even with a hug, and children can get back to feeling good and doing good. There is the ever popular “closure” with a spanking.

With restrictions, “you’re grounded for the rest of this week.” children apparently deserve punishment for the duration of the restriction. They tend to go to their rooms and sulk a bit. At some point, but perhaps not so quickly as with a spanking, they tend to come back to see how their parents are feeling about them. They may try to do something good. Then they test, not to see whether they can get out of the restriction, but to see whether their parents still think they deserve to be punished. “Could I please watch...on TV tonight?” Parents know they must stick to their guns and follow through. “No. you’re punished!” Behaviorally, doing something good has just been followed by punishment.

14. Loss of confidence and motivation. When adults are really concerned about children's behavior, they sometimes impose especially stern punishment to “make sure you never do THAT again!” Highly aversive stimuli tend to suppress other behaviors along with the target behavior. Some children seem to lack the confidence to try new things, especially in school. “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” I have known “tough” kids who were afraid to go on rides at amusement parks.

15. Impulsive behavior. When adults rely too heavily on punishment strategies to the exclusion of other strategies, they sometimes communicate that avoiding punishment is the main, or even the only reason to behave. “If you don’t stop you'll lose your pass this weekend.” When cues tell children that no punishment is operating (i.e., no adults are around to observe them), they have nothing else to think about, such as being safe, being healthy, being trusted, and so many other reasons to behave. They have nothing to guide them but their current impulses. And peer pressure. These side effects are closely related to the problem behaviors that parents, schools, and residential programs struggle with every day.

So, if we decide to do without punishment, what does that leave us? It leaves us natural and logical consequences, strategies that parents and others have employed successfully throughout history before the obsessive reliance on behaviorism. Scientifically, these strategies are behaviorally sound.

Natural consequences
Natural consequences are consequences that occur naturally as a direct result of behavior. Every behavior has them. They are not provided by adults, although children often need adults to help them to perceive and understand them. It is the natural consequences that determine whether behavior is good or bad, right or wrong. It’s not misbehavior unless there is some potential for natural consequences that are undesirable for someone.

Behaviorally, natural consequences provide the best reinforcements and punishments for behavior. All animal organisms, including people, even children, tend to learn from consequences that result directly from their behavior. The only way to change the consequences is to change the behavior. When children perceive and understand the natural consequences of their behavior, they will often change their behavior accordingly. When their behavior is producing natural consequences that they perceive as desirable, they usually do more of it. When their behavior is producing natural consequences that they perceive as undesirable, they are likely to try an alternative behavior.

Children perceive adults who help them understand the natural consequences of their behavior as allies. When children are willing to change their behavior once they understand the natural consequences, they feel that punishment is unnecessary. Adults who impose punishment when it isn’t necessary tend to become adversaries rather than allies.

Talking with children (rather than lecturing them), asking them questions and helping them to figure out answers, helping them to identify alternative behaviors, teaches children responsibility and self-control. And it teaches children to think.

Logical consequences
Logical (or rational) consequences are consequences that target behavior logically rather than targeting children with punishment. They are logically related to the behavior. Children can appreciate the logic.

Adults tend to use two very successful strategies with younger children. First, adults arrange things so that certain misbehaviors cannot occur when children are not yet responsible enough to handle certain things, such as knives, electricity, chemicals, medicines, and hot liquids. Or they increase their supervision when they are around such things. Second, they begin to teach children to take responsibility for “repairing the harm” their misbehavior has caused. They teach them to clean and dress their own wounds, to clean up their own spills, even to repair things they've broken.

These same two strategies can be equally effective with older children, even with adolescents. Adults can arrange things to prevent specific misbehaviors or increase supervision when children are not responsible enough to handle a certain privilege. And adults can help children to take responsibility for repairing the harm caused by their misbehavior.

For example, Billy, a ten-year-old, has not been coming home on time for dinner. His mother has explained all the natural consequences of this misbehavior, overcooked food, everyone’s evening off schedule, etc. Billy is sorry but still unable to keep track of the time when he is busy with his friends. So mom decides to prevent the misbehavior for a few days. She tells Billy that because he is not responsible enough to come home on time, the only way she can be sure he’s home at dinner time is if he stays at home after school. She doesn’t punish him. She lets him watch TV, play his video games, have friends over, play in the yard. She may even play a game with him if she has time. In a few days, she lets him try again. She knows that learning to keep track of the time requires Billy to learn a new skill and that it will take lots of practice. He cannot learn to come home if he never leaves. He needs learning trials - lots of them.

Or with the same example of Billy who can’t come home on time, mom tells Billy that one of the problems with his coming home late for dinner is that she’s stuck in the kitchen until 7:00 or even 7:30 cleaning up dinner. He can solve this problem for her if he takes responsibility for cleaning up dinner when he is late. Billy likes this. Now he doesn’t have to be sorry. He can fix it. But Billy very quickly finds out that cleaning up dinner is not so easy as mom makes it look. Sometimes mom has to call him back to scrub the pots again, or to clean the floor. Now mom has created a built in reinforcement for every time Billy comes home on time - he doesn’t have to clean up after dinner. Meanwhile, Billy is learning a new skill. And responsibility.

Both of these strategies have a lot to do with responsibility. Children like to feel responsible and to have adults think they are responsible. Responsibility is a grownup thing. Both of these strategies may be unpleasant, but they do not involve punishing children. Nevertheless, they do effectively influence their misbehavior.

Signs of behaviorism
Beware of behaviorists who use traditional reward and punishment strategies rather than sound behavioral principles, no matter what their credentials. Some signs:

  1.  When children have tantrums because they are overwhelmed by their emotions and don’t know what else to do, the tantrums are reinforced by tension reduction. Children need to learn a replacement behavior–“Tell someone why you are angry.” Adults should empower children to talk by listening when they do.
  2. When children have tantrums to retaliate and make adults angry, the behavior is reinforced when adults get angry. The punishment serves as the “cue” that adults are angry
  3.  When children feel they deserve to be punished for letting themselves become angry, the punishment may actually reinforce the behavior that gets the punishment they feel they deserve. (How do you punish a masochist?)

Behavioral science is about the reinforcement and punishment of behavior. It is not, and never was, about rewarding or punishing people. Once adults take charge of arranging “consequences,” it is no longer a simple behavioral event, it is a complex social event. Social behavior is not controlled by the rewards and punishments that adults arrange, but rather by social needs and social forces. Using natural and logical consequences is a behaviorally sound way for adults to help children take responsibility for changing their own behavior and learn self-control. Behaviorally, natural consequences make the best reinforcements and punishments for behavior. Logical consequences provide an alternative strategy to target behavior with punishment rather than targeting children. Strategies for rewarding and punishing children are more likely to distract children from the real reasons to behave while being less effective in controlling their behavior. And they may lead to harmful side effects and the very misbehaviors about which adults are most concerned.

Consequences do indeed control behavior. The challenge is in finding the ones that do so.

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