Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Persistence of Punishment

Why is it that no matter how much we know, when we are concerned about a behavior our first thought about how to change it seems to always be punishment? Is it our Puritan heritage? Our religious backgrounds that emphasize Heaven and Hell? Is it that our parents used to ground us when we did something bad? Maybe our entire culture reinforces the idea that punishment solves problems. After all, we do keep building all these jails.

If you are interested in learning more about exactly how to use both reinforcement and punishment, I recommend a book called Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training by Karen Pryor Ringpress Books Ltd; 3rd edition (March 2002). This was recommended to us in our DBT intensive training. The author states that punishment is not as powerful as reinforcement, and must be used precisely- for example, it must happen immediately after the undesirable behavior.

Let’s go back to our own upbringings. I certainly did not like it when my parents grounded me for sneaking out to see my boyfriend. However, much MUCH more difficult was when they sat me down for a talk that began: "Young lady, your mother and I are deeply disappointed in you." In other words, it was the relationship. That they loved me, and I had let them down. That is what I really wanted to avoid.

In out programs we could be much more deliberate about relational rewards and punishments, making sure to convey both our delight and our sadness about the events that take place.

But let’s remember that no matter how well done, rewards and punishments affect motivation. They make some one want to do something more, or want to stop doing it to avoid the punishment.

But if you do not know how to do anything different, it does not matter how much you want to. You need to learn the skills.

In my training I ask participants to think of a time they have tried to do something they really wanted to do, but they were not able to. The examples have included playing tennis, rollerblading, knitting, learning a language. People readily see that more punishment for not playing tennis well would not have helped- in fact it might have made the situation worse, and/or contributed to the learner giving up. If someone wants to learn to play tennis, they need lessons from a kind and patient teacher, who will teach them the many small skills that go into the game.

In some ways our punishments render our children LESS likely to achieve better behavior. They often contribute to shame and hopelessness, thus increasing the intolerable negative emotions that currently overwhelm the child’s ability to think. They accentuate passivity- I have messed up and there is nothing I can do about it. They undermine self worth.

But if not punishments, then what? We often turn to punishment when we ourselves are feeling overwhelmed and helpless.

Increase the child’s sense of safety
Build strong relationships that the child can trust so the child can ask for help
Help the child remember that people care about him even when they are not present
Teach the skills of emotion management
Increase the child’s self worth
Help the child learn to sooth her over-active danger system
Give the child opportunities for effective action and for fixing problems
Give the child opportunities to play and have fun
Create a strong community
Help the child create a positive plan for moving forward in life- create hope

These things are harder than assigning two days of room time, but they are more meaningful and they create lasting change.

Remember- children do well if they can. And remember also- children act better when they feel better.

Please let us know your thoughts by clicking on "post a comment" below and adding a comment.


SIFV said...

Thank you Pat for reminding us of the power of positive reinforcement vs. punishment. We know this to be true for dogs, horses, and other animals. But why not humans? children? The book you recommend is an excellent one. It is in my library. Perhaps it's time to pick it up again and take a refresher course in the art of positive reinforcement for behavior modification. Keep the ideas flowing...

Children's Aid NYC said...

Positive reinforcement does work! Building a strong community where a child can feel safe, nurtured and confident – that’s the best way to reinforce good values and behavior. Thanks for the book suggestion!

Heather for Children’s Aid NYC