To Punish or Not to Punish

Parents grapple with this question, swinging between frustration, anger, guilt and a myriad of other emotions. Are punishments effective in correcting the behaviours of children? Read on...

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Observe the following instances: 

1.    You took your child for swimming. As your child was about to get into the pool, the security guard points out that your child is not wearing his swimming cap and cannot be allowed inside the pool. Those are the rules. As much disappointing and frustrating it was for you (and your child), you go back home to get the cap. More importantly, next time you double-check that your child is in the proper swimming gear before leaving home.

2.    You are trying to login to your bank account and happen to have forgotten the password. After three wrong attempts, the site locks your account. You have no choice but to go through the required steps to regenerate your password. Next time, you make it a point to have a system to be able to recall your password easily.

3.    You have tickets to a play starting at 7pm. Your schedule was ill-planned and you reach at 7:07pm. Theatres, unlike movie halls, do not allow for entries after the show starts. So, you will have to miss the show. But you will definitely not the next time.  

In all of the above situations, you feel bad for yourself, you feel you are having a bad day, you feel like kicking yourself. But, you swear to not be in that situation again. 

Next time, YOU will take responsibility because you know the consequences.


That in essence is the principle of behaviour correction.

Now observe the following instances and the two ways of responding to them. 

(In all these cases, it is assumed that there is regular, open two-way communication between parent and child, which is indispensable. The child was made to understand the correct behaviour and was given a number of chances with reminders and promises taken.)

Your child takes toys to play and never puts them back in place.

Response 1: I have to told you a thousand times to keep your toys back after playing. But you don’t care. How can you be so irresponsible? I have so much work to do, and you are just not helping out. Why are you making my life so hard?

What children face: Exaggeration. Blaming. Playing Victim. Shrinking Self-Esteem by Labeling. 

Response 2: The house looks very untidy with toys lying around. I need to lock your building blocks up in the attic because they were not returned to where they belong after play. From now on, I will have to do this with other toys too that I find lying around. 

What children learn: Actions have consequences.

Your child won’t stop shouting at the top of his voice and runs around in the supermarket.  

Response 1: Even street kids are better than you! Walk with me or else you will get one from me once we reach home!

What children face: Shrinking Self-Esteem by Labelling. Threatening. Verbal Abuse.  

Response 2: Buddy, I told you, you will have to sit in the cart if you don’t stop running around. So now you are in the cart until we check-out.

…and next time for the supermarket trip: I think I’ll let you stay at home with mom today because we discussed how your running around was disturbing others and also making me worry about you. I might take you with me the next time.

What children learn: Actions have consequences.

Your child overshoots the playtime deadline despite daily reminders.

Response 1: Look who’s walking in! I am going crazy having this conversation with you everyday! You don’t even have time to finish homework. Now eat your dinner and go to bed! I don’t want to see you loitering around one more minute.

What children face: Verbal abuse. Parent displaying lack of control. Emotional Distancing. 

Response 2: We need to work out a solution so that you can be back home in time. For starters, from tomorrow you will have to finish your homework before going to play. Also, if you are not home by 7pm, I will have to cut one day of play. We may not need to do that, if we can discuss how you can use your time after coming from school better so that you have enough play time.

What children learn: Actions have consequences. Problem-solving. Mutual agreement.

Now, imagine the security guard hitting you with a stick for not carrying the cap. Or the bank website showing a pop-up cursing you for not remembering your password. Or the theatre attendant giving you a lecture on time-management.

Immature and Pointless. 

When we use threat, verbal abuse, labelling and physical punishment, the focus of the child shifts from their behaviour that needs correction to the punishment itself. Few things happen, then:

  • The child becomes resentful. They start plotting revenge, so to speak, which can be demonstrated in the form of talking disrespectfully, doing other things that irritate you, and trying to find ways to fly under the radar.  
  • They become incommunicative. They will talk to you on a need-basis.
  • They use punishment as a currency. The child rationalizes that accepting punishment is a payment for doing the wrong thing. Once they endure the punishment (which can be physical or verbal abuse), they are mentally free to repeat their behaviour, guilt-free.

Punishments should not be intended to inflict pain or to belittle – physically or verbally. Punishments should be instead focused on helping the child with the inner process of facing their own misbehaviour. Punishments should be explained before-hand, should be prompt and should fit the crime.


When handling misbehaviours of children, this principle must be the compass guiding our behaviour – with the intention to correct their wrong behaviour minus the heartache. If that can be called punishment, it is a good form of punishment.

Originally published on LinkedIn.

Pic Courtesy: People Creations on Pixabay

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