198. Punishment

In strictly behavioristic language, a punishment is an event that decreases the frequency of a behavior, and a reward is an event that increases the frequency. I’m not a strict behaviorist – far from it – but I do like the simplicity and practicality of those definitions. They explain a lot about why certain things work or don’t work with children.
For example, take sending a child to her/his room. If a child has done something that the adult in charge does not like, and the adult prescribes solitary confinement as the remedy, this is usually considered a punishment. What’s supposed to happen is that the child suffers from loneliness and/or boredom, and is then less likely to repeat the undesirable behavior.
But that isn’t what happens. Good can come from the isolation: the adult and child get to spend some time away from each other, and if absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, at least it can take some of the edge off the hostility. The adult doesn’t resort to behaviors and statements that could be more destructive than “Go to your room,” and the child, who usually has a fairly child-oriented room anyway, gets to snuggle up with a stuffed animal, work on some project, or write angry words in a diary.
But the event doesn’t necessarily decrease the frequency of the behavior. In my experience, punishments don’t work unless they’re done with precision. I’ve seen them work, but only with a few children whose target behaviors were extreme, and easy to notice. The punishments had to be quite consistent. The child had to know, without a doubt, that a certain event would result in a certain other event that would be undesirable. This requires having an adult whose job it is to notice that child’s behavior. One teacher responsible for an entire class may be able to do it, but I haven’t met that teacher yet.
There’s another aspect to this issue. The adult is a model. I keep telling you that, because it’s true, important, and easy to forget. When it comes to punishment, the adult has to behave in a way that can serve as a model for the child’s behavior. So hitting is an unacceptable punishment. Whatever event the adult decides on has to meet two criteria: it has to decrease the frequency of the undesirable behavior, and it has to be an acceptable model for the child to follow.
That ain’t easy. That’s why, as a teacher, I learned to use rewards and praise as much as I could, and with varying degrees of success, tried to avoid punishing. If I couldn’t do it right, I wanted to try to avoid doing it at all. With less success, I also tried to parent that way. Good luck.

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