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Punitive and non-punitive discipline and subsequent rule-following in young children

Ignatius Toner

There is a body of evidence which suggests that punishment often may not be as effective in suppressing unacceptable behaviors as parents and other caretakers might hope it would be (Ferster, Culbertson, and Boren, 1975). When parents or caretakers punish a child, they usually have two goals in mind. First, they would like to see an im­mediate suppression of that particular behavior. Punishment, by definition, accomplishes this short-term goal. Second, punishment, it is usually hoped, should result in some sort of lasting influence whereby the punished child will not engage in the behavior later, even when unsupervised. The latter goal may not always be adequately achieved through the use of punishment alone. For example, when rats are shocked for pressing a lever to get a food reward, these rats, of course, press the bar less during the sessions in which they are punished for pressing. However, during sessions when the punishment is not employed, the rats often press the bar at a higher rate than they had before punishment training had been first introduced. In this case, it can be asserted that the use of punishment alone can lead to even­tual increases in responding by these animals.

In the human parallel, as previously noted, parents who claimed to employ a power-assertive disciplinary style to punish rule-breaking behavior in their children at home often had children who demon­strated higher levels of rule-breaking when away from home (Hoffman, 1970). These results suggest that the use of punishment may teach the punished individual a more complex lesson than the punishing agent intends. The person who is punished may learn to discriminate punishing versus non-punishing situations. He/she might then refrain from demonstrating the behavior only when punishment is likely to follow and yet remain likely to demonstrate the behavior when punish­ment is not likely to follow.

Contemporary theorists and researchers (Bandura, 1977; Hetherington and Parke, 1979) have expressed concern that punish­ment may also generate side effects which may not be at all desirable in children. Punishment, for example, may lead to increases in aggressive behavior in the punished child since punishment can frustrate children. Further, the act of punishing a child may serve as an aggressive behavior which can be imitated by the child. The con­stant use of punishment as a behavior control technique might also lead the child to feel a resentment toward the punishing adult. Con­sequently, the parent or caretaker who typically uses punishment may find that the child avoids him/her and this increased alienation may then render the adult an ineffective socializer in general for the child.

However, it should be noted that many researchers contend that such side effects can be adequately controlled (Johnston, 1972).

Other long-standing objections to the over-reliance on punishment as a disciplinary tool (Skinner, 1953) include the fact that punishment does not always provide the direction that reward does. In other words, punishment informs the child that a particular behavior is unacceptable but punishment does not necessarily inform the child of what alternative behaviors are acceptable. When the child is rewarded for a particular desired behavior, on the other hand, the message is much more directive in that the child has a better opportunity to learn what to do, not just what not to do. In addition, punishment, if not carefully used, might cause emotional reactions in the child which may make learning quite difficult. If the child is severely punished, he/she may become so emotionally aroused that learning is impaired and the lesson that the punishment is used to convey may be lost. In fact, some forms of punishment (e.g., ritualized spanking) may be such traumatic events that they can draw the child’s attention away from the act being punished and to the punishment itself, again rendering the lesson difficult to learn. As caretakers consider all of these possible negative effects, few now advocate a reliance on punishment alone as a disciplinary tactic to increase rule-following behavior in young children who have begun mastering their native language (Parke, 1977).


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Ferster, C. B.; Culbertson, S.; Boren, M.C.P. (1975). Behaviour principles. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Hetherington, E. M. & Parke, R. D. (1979). Child Psychology: A contemporary viewpoint. New York: McGraw-Hill

Hoffman, M. L. (1970). Moral development. In P.H. Mussen (Ed), Carmichael’s manual of child psychology (vol.2) New York: Wiley

Johnston, J. M. (1972). Punishment of human behaviour. American Psychologist, 27, 1033-1054.

Parke, R. D. (1977). Punishment in children: Effects, side effects and alternative strategies. In R. Hom & R. Robinson (Eds), Psychological processes in early education. New York: Academic Press, pp 71-97

Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behaviour. New York: Free Press.

Toner, I. J. (1986) Punitive and non-punitive discipline and subsequent rule-following in young children.
Child Care Quarterly. Vol.15 No.1 pp. 31-32

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