Behaviour Modification: Giving the Boot to Corporal Punishment

“Spare the rod, spoil the child” and “No hiding equals no discipline” are familiar adages that offer advice with biblical roots – but are no longer treated as gospel. Indeed, there is no hiding from the fact that research proves corporal punishment is not the most effective method of instilling discipline in children. There are two highly effective alternatives to punishment – positive and negative reinforcement.

What is ‘punishment’?

Punishment is a means of discipline and it is designed to reduce undesirable behaviour. It can take two forms:

  1. The giving of something horrible
    e.g. the giving of a smack or telling a child: “Go to your room and stay there until I tell you, you can come out!”
  2. The removal of something nice
    e.g., telling a child they can’t watch TV for the next three nights or that they cannot go out and play with their friends, or taking a toy away from a child.

What is the Effect of Punishment as a Means of Discipline?

With punishment, the control is entirely in the hands of the parent*. The child is powerless. The child learns that the consequences for his or her behaviour come from external sources. They do not learn to internalise discipline (for example, feeling bad because they know they have done something wrong). It leads to a very immature level of moral development – children will be obedient only to avoid punishment, but will not consider behaviour as incorrect if it is not discovered and punished.

If parents insist on using punishment as a form of discipline, then the following principles should be considered:

  • Punishment tends to be ineffective if parents punish their children without explaining the reasons for the rules they have made and why specific behaviours are acceptable or not. Without explanations, children tend to focus on whether they will be punished instead of trying to understand why the act is wrong.
  • If punishment is given inconsistently, it tends to be ineffective. Consistent punishment implies that parents will always punish a specific kind of behaviour they find unacceptable. Parents should be consistent in their demands as well as in the rules they make. If they are inconsistent, they confuse their children.
  • The timing of the punishment is important. It should be given just after the misbehaviour has occurred or just at the beginning. If, for example, a child repeatedly runs into the road, he or she must be punished when he or she steps off the pavement or immediately after they have run into the road. Punishment hours later will have much less effect.
  • A mother must not wait until the father gets home (or vice versa) so that he can punish their child for a misdeed done earlier that day. Not only is it too late, but it also illustrates to the child the powerlessness of the mother to enforce discipline.
  • Parents should be aware that their choice of punishment could achieve the opposite of what they would like to achieve. For example, physical punishment for aggression tends to increase aggression instead of reducing it. (Any punishment that mirrors the action being punished effectively reinforces the action as a way to achieve your own ends.)
  • It should also be noted that giving in to a child’s demands (“I want ice cream now!”) because of frustration or embarrassment normally increases the likelihood of recurrence and escalates the degree of that naughty behaviour. The child quickly learns they own their parent’s full attention when they throw a temper tantrum and tend to reproduce it whenever attention is desired. (Sadly, too many parents ignore the child when the child is well behaved and only pay attention when the child is being naughty. Any attention is better than no attention, so the child will do whatever it takes to get attention). When parents consistently ignore temper tantrums (and admittedly this is not an easily weathered storm), the child learns there is no point in behaving that way. It is important to note the phrase “consistently ignore”, because if the parent sometimes gives in to a temper tantrum it exacerbates the problem. The child merely learns that if they just scream louder, or for longer, they will eventually get their way, so of course they do exactly that – perform worse temper tantrums than ever. Do not expect them to drop their well-honed tantrum skills over-night but be prepared to live with them forever if you continue to fold to their demands. Setting them clear on your resolve and on your willingness to talk when they have calmed down is a more rewarding solution. (For example: “I am not going to listen to you screaming and shouting like this. When you calm down and are ready to talk to me properly, I will be ready to listen. In the meantime I will be getting dinner in the kitchen, come and find me there.”)

What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is a form of discipline that is designed to increase desirable behaviour. It can take two forms: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the giving of something nice (a reward). Rewards can be given in a tangible form, such as giving gifts or special privileges, or in an intangible form as in giving praise (e.g. “I am so proud of you”). There should be a mix of both tangible and intangible forms of reward.

Example: If the child is playing on her own nicely, the parent must notice and praise the child. “Thank you for playing so nicely on your own. It is such a big help to mommy while she is preparing the dinner.”

Because the child gets the parent’s attention, it reinforces the behaviour the parent wants, which in turn is likely increase. The child will play nicely again to get more attention. Most people love positive attention and praise and will work hard to receive it.

Minimising the giving of tangible awards keeps the child from doing the right thing simply to get a gift. Learning to appreciate the intangible rewards leads to a mature level of moral development and an internal sense of right and wrong. The child who has internal self-disciple will behave well whether the parent is around or not and will gain self-satisfaction. In the words of US president “Honest Abe” Lincoln: “When I do good I feel good. When I do bad I feel bad. That’s my religion.” They learn to become their own moral compass.

Positive reinforcement is sometimes called Behaviour Modification. The principle behind behaviour modification is that the parent ignores bad behaviour, but actively seeks out good behaviour to reward.

This is effective because, as I have mentioned, most of us love praise and positive attention. Children want to please and when they can succeed in pleasing their parents they develop as happy and well-adjusted individuals with a good sense of self-esteem.

Negative Reinforcement

This is the taking away (removal) of something horrible or unpleasant. For example, telling the child: “As soon as you have tidied your room you can go and play.” (Removal of the rule, “You must stay in your room until it is tidy”)

This is effective because the parent puts the control in the child’s hands. The child decides how quickly they tidy their room – they can do it quickly or slowly, but however long it takes, they have to tidy it before they may go and play.

What is Time-out?

Time-out is like solitary confinement. Forbidding social interaction by making the child sit on their own – facing a wall or corner of the room, or being sent away to another room all together – can be done as a form of punishment or as a form of negative reinforcement.

Option 1: “You’re a bad boy for breaking your toy like that. Go to your room and stay there until tell you to come out!”

Option 2: “I am really cross that you deliberately broke your toy in a temper. Now go to your room and think about why I am so cross and, when you are ready to come and say sorry, I will be here ready to listen.”

Punishment [Option 1] is not very effective. The parent is in total control and punishment does not work for all the reasons already given. Done as a form of negative reinforcement [Option 2], however, she puts the control in her child’s hands. Children want to please. Knowing that their parent is disappointed in them is enough to cause great distress for a child.

How long the child stays in her room is unimportant. It may only be a few minutes but it will feel like a lifetime to the child! As long as you can see that the child has thought about what they have done and are sorry, you can listen and forgive. If not, the child can be sent back into the room to think about it some more. If the child really does not understand why you were so upset or angry in the first place, you can use it as an opportunity to explain your reaction, and then let the issue go.

Tip: When asking a child to explain their behaviour, don’t ask them a why question (e.g. “Why did you break that toy?”). It is very difficult for a child to answer a why question. Rather change the question into a “what, how, when or where” question.

“What was going on when you broke the toy?”

“What happened?”

“What were you feeling when you…?”

“What were you thinking when you…”

“How did you think it would help to…?”

Obviously this cannot be done with babies, but it can be done once the child is talking and has enough vocabulary and emotional intelligence to be able to explain themselves.

When dealing with little ones up to three years of age, leaving them alone or telling them to stay until you say they can come out, is effectively physical and psychological abandonment. A distressed baby left alone will just become more distressed. They learn that the world is a scary place, not to be trusted. I would not recommend time-out for babies at all. Far better for parents to be in tune with their babies’ needs and to sooth them in times of distress.

Time-out when the child is in control is also useful for teaching the child to manage their emotions (and develop their emotional intelligence). When you tell the child to go to their room until they have calmed down and are ready to come out and play nicely, you are showing them that sometimes it is good for all of us to take time-out to calm down and regain control. Let them see you as parent take time-out. For example you could say, “I am really angry right now and I am likely to do or say something I regret. Let me take some time-out and calm down. I will be back in a few minutes and then we can talk about this.” It is important to explain what you are doing and why. This models the appropriate (assertive) behaviour that will help your child succeed in life and enjoy positive, healthy relationships.

* “Parent” or “parents” refers to a singular parent, caretaker, guardian or a pair of them working in unison, if such is the case.

Claire Newton

Claire Newton

Claire Newton is qualified psychologist, speaker, trainer and coach. She holds a Masters Degree in Psychology and a Higher Diploma in Education, as well as a Certificate in Career and Executive Coaching. She is a member of the Health Professions Council of South Africa, the Durban Practicing Psychologists Group, Toastmasters International, and is the past President of the KwaZulu-Natal Chapter of the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa - having done a double term in office.

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