This entry has been a long time coming, but it’s something that is often on my mind. Every day I hear the same parenting advice – punishment and rewards, threats and praise, negative and positive attention. In other words, the very definition of behaviour modification.
Does it work? That depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to get your child to mind you, then yes, it quite often does. However, for our own family’s goals, we have chosen not to use this system of behaviour modification. I’d like to share our reasons for this choice, today focusing in particular on the punishment side, saving the rewards/praise aspect for another day. This is not meant as a criticism of others - I am certain that all of us would agree that we want to raise our children in the manner that is best for them - but rather as an explanation of our own choices.
External versus Internal Focus
The goal of punishment is to inflict something unpleasant on the child, whether physical (spanking, slapped hand, etc) or emotional (shaming, time-out/separation from parent, loss of favourite toy, etc), in order to discourage them from repeating the behaviour. The focus is on the external – how to extinguish the negative behaviour – rather than on the internal. Heart-level change does not result from punishment.
There is also an aspect of fear to punishment. The child “obeys” because they don’t want to be spanked. The child “obeys” because they don’t want a time-out…because they don’t want to be separated from their parents for a time…because they don’t want to have their toy taken away. The child does not make the right decision simply because it is the right decision. Rather than teaching obedience for the right reasons, punishment teaches obedience for all the wrong ones, instilling wrong motives in a child’s heart. The child does not choose to do right out of an inner sense of compassion and justice, nor do they obey out of a sense of love and devotion to the parent (which then carries over into a similar relationship with our Father – obeying Him because they love Him) – instead, they “obey” merely to avoid the unpleasant result of disobedience. And yet this is not obedience at all. True obedience comes from the heart, not from force or fear.
This is the most prevalent mentality I see in our churches today. As long as the outside is “good”, the inside doesn’t matter. As long as I attend church, it doesn’t matter what I do to my wife behind closed doors. As long as I’m an active member of my community, it doesn’t matter than I beat my children every evening. As long as I do all the “right things”, it doesn’t matter if I look down my nose at all those other “sinners”. And yet this is entirely contrary to what God says – God says it is our hearts that matter most of all, and the sins we can’t see that are the most dangerous.
Encourages Negative Behaviours
Punishment encourages a child to hide their feelings rather than express them honestly and truthfully. This can have a myriad of negative consequences down the road, well into adulthood, affecting their relationships with spouses, children, and friends. Children are not taught appropriate ways to deal with anger – they are taught that expressions of anger result in being spanked or sent to their room. They are not taught how to handle their feelings – they are taught that crying will result in being given “something to cry about”. They are taught that happy is the only acceptable emotion.
Study after study has also shown that punishment increases deceitful behaviour in children. Afraid to own up to their mistakes, they become secretive, they lie, and they hide their errors and wrongdoings. In addition, there is no “motive” to obey when the threat of punishment is removed. If they have spent their lives obeying only to avoid punishment, there is no need to continue to obey when the parent is not present or when the child thinks they can “get away with it”.
Finally, the child will come to consider whether the negative behaviour is “worth” the punishment. Is sneaking this candy “worth” the spank I will get? Is taunting my little sister “worth” being sent to my room for a while? And then what recourse does the parent have left when a punishment is no longer effective? Harder spankings? Longer groundings? More loss of privilege? There’s only so much you can do once the child has learned to weigh the negative behaviour against the likely punishment – and then the behaviour spirals out of control.
Prevents Learning from Natural/Logical Consequences
Rather than teaching the child, punishment actually prevents the opportunity to learn from one’s mistakes. The child experiences the punishment, which is nearly always unrelated to the wrongdoing (spanking, time-out, loss of unrelated privilege, etc), but does not experience the natural or logical consequence of his action. He is not given the chance to develop problem solving skills, to find ways to effect restitution, resolution, and reconciliation in the situation. He simply “pays” for his wrongdoing rather than learning how to fix it. The message taken away is “don’t do that again” (or, at least, don’t get caught doing that again), rather than “I can fix this and learn from my mistakes”. Punishment prevents a child from learning how to take responsibility for his actions. We see this every day in our society – adults who are afraid to own up to their mistakes and don’t have the skills to fix them.
Discipline, on the other hand, shows the child what they have done wrong, gives them ownership of the problem, gives them options for solving the problem, and makes use of natural or logical consequences. It does not shame the child or make him pay for his errors.
Increases Peer Vulnerability
Because punishment only teaches a child to obey, and not why to obey or how to think for themselves and make their own decisions, a child is more vulnerable to peer-pressure. Already practiced people-pleasers, a child raised using behaviour modification is more easily swayed into following the crowd. They have often not developed the necessary skills to be assertive and say no, to retain their individuality, to think through a decision on their own and to make a wise choice.
Sends Conflicting Messages
Punishment often sends conflicting messages, such as hitting a child in order to teach them not to hit others. How does anyone see any logic in that?
Even when hitting others is not the issue, however, punishment still demonstrates that one can get their way through force. Children will learn what we model – the biggest and strongest win, fear is a powerful motivator, it is acceptable to hit people that wrong you, and the easy way out is the suitable choice.
Most of us object to the comparison of children with animals, and yet the prevalent parenting method in our culture (behaviour modification) is one that was used on animals in the first place.
Negates the Message of the Gospel
Many of the big Christian authors will tell you that your child’s salvation depends on you punishing them. Punishment is considered the method of paying for their sin and removing the child’s guilt.
This is completely contrary to the message of the Gospel, which says that all of our sins, including those of children, have already been paid by Christ on the cross. Punishing our child again takes away from that message. It says that what Christ has already done was not enough.
The idea that any parenting method can save a child is likewise contrary to the Gospel. Only the Holy Spirit can draw our child to Christ. Only Christ can save our child through faith. And faith is a gift of God, lest any man (or parent) should boast.
You cannot beat a child into salvation. A child is not saved by a parent punishing him in order to "atone for his sin". A child is not saved by "being good". A child is saved through a relationship with Jesus Christ - nothing more, nothing less - and anything that suggests otherwise is outright heresy.
Contrary to the Grace of God
Instead of saving them, punishment presents a distorted view of God to our children. God raises His children with grace and mercy, not punishment. In His love, He does allow us to experience the natural consequences of our actions, but He does not punish us. That is not the way Jesus treated His disciples, either.
Moreover, punishment is often unrealistic, as we begin to demand more from our children than we expect from ourselves. I love the way Christie phrased it:
"We always use "punitive" for kids. What about for ourselves? Oh no, for ourselves we want mercy and grace and patience and kindness and every other chance available..... but for our kids? LAW LAW LAW.”
There often seems within the Christian community to be a hyper-focus on verses intended for others. In this case, many parents quote Ephesians 6:1 (“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right”), and yet ignore the verse directed towards parents that follows (“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and discipline of the Lord.”). It is not our place to make our children obey us; that verse contains an instruction for them, not for us. Rather, it is our duty to “bring them up in the training and discipline of the Lord”.
Punishment is not Discipline
The words “punishment” and “discipline” are typically used interchangeably in our culture, despite the significant difference between the two. I’ve found this chart on the difference between punishment and discipline to be excellent.
Punishment is the use of an undesirable action intended to make the child feel bad in order to reduce or eliminate the desire to exhibit the same behaviour again. The focus is on control over external behaviours to achieve compliance.
Discipline is the continuous process of coming alongside the child to teach and guide them into maturity. The focus is on the internal, inspiring proper motives for heart-level obedience. It requires much patience, much grace, much wisdom, and much repetition. It teaches a child the how’s and why’s so that they can make decisions on their own, and it allows them to make wrong decisions while the child is still safe at home in order that they may learn from the consequences of those wrong decisions before they are sent out into the world on their own.
I often hear statements along the lines of “I had to discipline my son last night,” as though “discipline” is a one-time occurrence. Yet discipline is a constant part of everyday life, a continuous process of modelling, teaching, guiding, and building relationships. Discipline is active teaching, not mere reactions and punishments. It is coming alongside your child to guide them into maturity, not standing above them ready to force them into submission as soon as they do something wrong. Discipline requires a relationship between the parent and child that is based on mutual love, trust and respect. Punishment undermines this relationship, and indeed is incompatible with discipline.
There are parents who choose to use both punishment and true discipline while raising their children (following spankings (punishment) with long talks and wise guidance (discipline)), and point to their child as evidence that punishment “works” – and yet it is the discipline that has worked in spite of the punishment, and would have worked at least as well without the punishment. If you know that you can raise a child without punishment, why choose to punish anyway? It’s illogical. It’s like saying you’re aware that you can have a good marriage without nagging your husband…but you’re going to choose to nag him anyway. Just because.
Before I end, I wanted to touch briefly on some additional reasons we have for avoiding the use of spanking in particular.
When someone raises concerns about spanking, the most common response is “I was spanked and I turned out fine”. However that doesn’t negate the very real fact that risks do exist and that there are many people who were spanked are didn’t turn out "fine". Many of them are still, as adults, dealing with the ramifications of their well-meaning parents. Just because something "works" doesn't make it right.
In many countries, physical punishment is illegal. In Canada, it is illegal to strike a child under 2 or over 12. I find it sad to hear so many parents talking of their “parental right” to hit their child. It is illegal for my husband to hit me. It is illegal for me to hit a stranger on the street. It is illegal for my co-worker to hit me. It is illegal for me to hit my acquaintance. But a child – the only one who can’t defend himself – is fair game? I wonder how many parents who believe they have a “right” to hit their child also believe their spouse should have the “right” to hit them when they act undesirably.
The practice of spanking on the buttocks comes from the Victorian era, not biblical times as is so often assumed. There is no record of striking a child on the buttocks before this time. Spanking began as d0mestic discipline (‘0’ to prevent Google searches on the subject from leading here, thankyouverymuch – and please Google with care yourselves, should you wish to look up more information on the subject) between spouses, not as a child discipline practice at all. The sexual origin of striking on the buttocks is enough reason all by itself for me to not spank my children in that manner.
It is generally accepted by many in the Christian community that physical punishment is “biblical”. The “rod verses” (all found in Proverbs) are frequently referenced as evidence that physical punishment is at least permitted, if not mandated, and that any Christian who wishes to take the Bible literally must physically strike their child.
And yet physical punishment today rarely looks like the “literal” interpretation of those verses. The rod referenced is the Hebrew word shebet, which the Bible says in Exodus was capable of killing a grown adult. If you want to truly take those verses “literally”, you would have to strike the child on the back with a shepherd’s staff, large enough that you could conceivably kill him with it.
This is why I always scratch my head when Christians talk about how maybe some spankings aren’t okay, but as long as you do it “biblically”, it’s alright. By “biblically”, they typically mean a) don’t spank in anger, b) hit your child only with an implement (wooden spoon, switch, belt, glue stick, etc) OR only with your hand (depending on who you’re talking to), and c) “reconcile” with your child afterwards. Yet these things are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible – in fact, the only place you can find such formulas for “biblical spanking” is from the Christian parenting giants, the Pearls and Ezzos and Dobsons, those wolves in sheep’s clothing who have worked their way into the Christian community and led so many well-intentioned parents astray with their "godly" and "biblical" parenting methods.
Regardless, examining the rod verses closer provides a very different picture. A shepherd's staff (rod/shebet) is used to guide, not to beat. Rather than examine this subject in detail here (worthy of an entire entry itself), I highly recommend this study on the subject.
Thanks to Skinner, this behaviour modification model has become prevalent in our society over the past hundred years. Children raised under this model will often swing one of two ways, either becoming “good little girls and boys”, people-pleasers, and performance-oriented on the one side; or bitter, angry, and rebellious on the other.
Behaviour modification fails to teach inner discipline, instills wrong motives in our children’s hearts, and stunts the development of wise decision making and autonomy. For Christians, it presents a distorted view of God to our children and hinders their ability to obey from a place of love and devotion. For all these reasons and more, we cannot in good conscience use the behaviour modification model of punishment and rewards, threats and praise, negative attention and positive attention.
Parenting with grace and true discipline is not easy. It requires a great deal of time, effort, patience, relationship, and most of all prayer. It is firm but not unyielding, flexible but not permissive. It teaches a child how to think, not merely what to think, with a focus on the heart rather than outward appearance. It recognises the unique nature of each child and honours them as God's creation. It models for our children the same love and grace that God mercifully extends to us.
1 John 4:18
Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey
Heartfelt Discipline by Clay Clarkson
The Mission of Motherhood by Sally Clarkson
Kids are Worth It! by Barbara Coloroso
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
Families Where Grace is in Place by Jeff VanVonderen