Thursday, April 24, 2008

How Will They Learn? What About Punishment?

Staff who are trying to work in this new way often raise this very legitimate question: if we don’t severely punish the kids for things they do wrong, how are they going to learn not to do them? They will be out in the world doing these horrid things and will end up in jail.

How are they going to learn?

Or, to put it another way, what are they going to learn? The idea of punishment is that a person will learn that when they do a certain behavior bad things happen, things they don’t want. So they stop doing that behavior to avoid those bad things.

Alan Kazden states that: "More than 50 years of good science tell us that punishment doesn't do much to improve behavior. Punishment doesn't teach what to do. It rarely succeeds even in teaching what not to do.
The misunderstanding and misuse of punishment go at the top of the list [of parenting misunderstandings]. For too many parents, trying to change behavior mostly means noticing what they don’t want and punishing it. Even if they don’t want to punish their child, they think it’s their duty to do so, but the research tells us that it’s not very effective. That’s because punishment doesn’t teach a child what to do, and it doesn’t reward the desired behavior, the only effective way to get the child to do it. Punishment also has bad side effects, such as increasing a child’s aggressiveness and tendency to avoid you, which can make it harder to improve his behavior. Research shows that even if punishment temporarily stops unwanted behavior, it will return at the same rate, or worse, in the hours or days to come. Your child’s resistance to punishment escalates as fast as the severity of the punishment does, or even faster, so you have to get harsher and harsher to achieve the same result.

Meanwhile, your child is learning all sorts of bad lessons ... Hitting teaches hitting as the way to respond to life’s problems; yelling teaches yelling; becoming angry teaches anger, and so on. Modeling is a very strong way to teach behavior, stronger than punishment, which helps explain why the harm you do with harsh punishments can multiply and last a long time. And, of course, punishing a behavior is still a form of paying attention to it, and any kind of attention can encourage your child to do something again. And yet, in many cases, even the most loving and conscientious parents think that they have to punish and punish to change behavior.

The research shows that punishment can be a small, effective part of a program that also features lots of positive reinforcement of the behaviors you desire. This kind of punishment is mild, brief, and sparingly used, and, if possible, it occurs when the behavior first surfaces, so it can short-circuit an unwanted sequence of actions before that sequence can get fully underway. Sometimes all it takes is a well-timed look or word to stop misbehavior. Technically, that look or word is punishment, or the threat of it. But parents typically wait until the misbehavior has run its course, then punish severely, frequently, and often angrily, and that usually doesn’t work."

(Alan E. Kazdin is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. He is also president of the American Psychological Association and author, most recently, of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child.)

Mac Bledsoe, author of Parenting with Dignity lists these reasons punishment doesn't work:
“Buck Minor, the cowboy on our ranch, used to always say, "If you teach an animal a lesson by meanness or cruelty, don't be surprised if the animal remembers the meanness and cruelty and forgets the lesson.
1. Punishment removes the focus of both the "punisher" and "punished" from the behavior in question. When a parent resorts to punishment both the parent and the child begin to pay attention to the punishment, its fairness and its enforcement. This allows the child to stop thinking about the decision process that brought about the negative consequences.
2. Punishment focuses anger on the "punisher." When we resort to punishment it gives children someone else to be mad at or someone else to blame, and when they are mad they do not have to face their own behavior and consequences. The resulting anger interrupts responsible thought for both the child and parent. A child sent to his/her room will seldom or never think about how to behave properly but rather will think about how unfair his/her parents are or some equally negative idea.
3. Punishment induced behavior "extinguishes" rapidly. In the absence of punishment, the negative behavior returns. Behavior that has been shaped by punishment will disappear soon after the punishment has disappeared. It becomes a game of not getting caught.
4. Punishment traps the "punisher" into maintaining the punishment schedule. "You made the rules, now you must enforce them."
5. Punishment does not teach accountability. The "punisher" (parent) is responsible to see that the child's behavior changes. If you use punishment, by your actions you have accepted responsibility for your child's behavior.
6. Most of all, punishment denies a child the right to experience the real consequence of their actions. The reward for good performance is... good performance. Seldom is it necessary for us to provide the reward, and the same is true for poor performance. The punishment for poor performance is poor performance.
7. If you use punishment as a tool it may work to stop a particular action. If you send a fighting kid to his room he may have stopped fighting for the immediate present. Sometimes that is necessary to do. The error comes when we think that the punishment has taught the child what to do in the next situation. It has taught the kid NOT to do something, but it has not taught them what to do!"

Surely our kids have had a lot of experience learning that their bad behavior brings negative consequences. In fact, they blame all the awful things that have happened to them on their own bad behavior. Because of what a terrible kid they are, their mother left them, their father beat them, they were molested, they ended up in residential.

If negative consequences could change them it surely would have happened by now.

Why are they doing these destructive things?

Because they are over whelmed with emotion, over-reactive, and often in the pit of despair. Because they feel lost, alone, and terrified. Because they don’t notice their emotions until they are in the midst of a hurricane. Because they see danger every where. Because they don’t trust others and can’t ask for or accept help. Because they feel worthless, have no hope and nothing to lose. Because they don’t believe any one cares, including themselves.

Does punishment help with all this? In fact it makes every aspect of it worse.

So what will help? What do they need to learn?

That they are safe. That people can be trustworthy. That they are worthwhile and can have a meaningful future. How to identify and manage emotions. Ways to sooth and take care of them selves. That when things go wrong between people, the rift can be mended. And most of all, that there is someone who likes them, sees good in them, and will stick with them as they struggle to heal.

They will learn these things through relationships, not through punishments.


Steve Brown said...

I think this depends on the kind of behavior one is talking about. I believe with certain severe behaviors, strict consequences (often paired with rewards) can be more effective. For example, there is evidence that, for some sexually abusive youth, involvement with court situation is a significant factor in deterring them from reoffending – even if they never received treatment. When I worked with juvenile sex offenders, it was often very helpful to have kids adjudicated so that there was some incentive to take treatment seriously. For some kids who were not adjudicated, the incentive to invest in treatment depended solely on factors like the relationship, positive peer culture, family involvement,etc. But, when I had these critical factors combined with court mandate for them to be in treatment, our chances of success improved and avoided the situation where a kids would just bide time until he timed out of the program.

Repeated aggressive acts without consequences often gives kids an inflated and grandiose sense of their own power which is already a problem in adolescence. This is particularly intensified by kids whose life has been characterized by powerlessness. I think that selected strict consequences for illegal acts via courts/probation can be necessary but not sufficient piece of a treatment plan to move kids toward a more healthy path. Of course, the court and probation often don’t work in concert with treatment providers so treatment providers often have to deal with kids who have gotten the message that there will be no severe consequences for their actions.

In short, while I think the relationship is our most powerful tool – as always its more complicated than that – that there has to be a proper balance of carrots and sticks in an ideal environment.

Just some thoughts!!!

Anonymous said...

Pat -- just checking the blog to help prep for a training tomorrow. This entry is EXACTLY what I needed to formulate my thoughts and structure the discussion we will have about this "hot" topic. Thanks for your help. Pam Deiter-Sands