Punishment is using a consequence of some sort to stop or decrease a behavior. People who speed (and are caught) are initially punished with fines, defensive driving, a raise in insurance, etc. Two incidents of this punishment was sufficient to keep me from speeding (well, more than 5 mph over). Had it not been ( and I had been caught again) I would be subject to loosing my license, loosing my insurance, and multiple other consequences all the way up to jail. Punishment and fear of punishment for the crime of speeding is enough to make me careful about my speed, though I would prefer at times to go much faster. We have several means to punish those that break laws in our society, and if our values and morals don’t keep us from breaking these laws, society hopes that a desire to avoid the punishment will.
The problem with punishment is that it often requires fear to be effective preventativly, and fear can be overcome with the right motivators. If we are angry enough, or hurt enough fear goes right out of the window, especially if the behavior that is going to be punished is rewarding enough. There also has to be a belief that they will be caught in order for punishment to work, and if you are training a kid or a animal (or a spouse) the likelihood that you will be there when the behavior is committed is unlikely at times.
The punishment also has to have meaning. As a kid my mom would ground me to my room for an evening. Since I love to read and had oodles of books an evening in my room was of little to no consequence to me. There was little to no fear of this punishment and it rarely changed my behavior. Lucky for my mom I was a pretty good kid in general. For several people in prison, prison has little to no meaning as a punishment. For some it is seen as a badge of honor to be sent to prison, and for some it is seen as a means of survival. For some it just isn’t a sufficient punishment to deter them from committing the crime.
Punishment must be enforceable. This means that if you ground your kids, you’re grounded too. If you ground your kids and you leave, your kids aren’t going to comply with being grounded.
When used incorrectly punishments have little to no effect and can actually make behaviors worse. Incorrectly used punishments confuse and frustrate both animals and people, and often create only bitterness and anger. A good example of this is the incorrect usage of “Time Out “. Time outs are used to remove a child (young children and toddlers) from a behavior that is incorrect, giving them time to pull their behavior in to check ultimately returning to the activity (not the negative behavior though). It can also be used to give parents a moment to manage their anger before consequences (punishments) are put in to place. Time out’s are used instead as the punishment itself. The time out should be used as a quick “whoops!” to redirect the behavior, not to eliminate the behavior. Punishment is then implemented after the time out, such as losing the toy they were playing with, or saying they are sorry to the playmate.
It is also necessary to know the difference between a threat and a warning. Threats often just breed resentment. Warnings are very different than threats. A threat is a plan to use verbal or physical violence if a behavior is continued. A threat is also a plan that isn’t carried out. A warning is a marker of a behavior with a notice of a consequence that will follow if the behavior is continued. For example a threat is “You keep that up you’re gonna get it!”. A warning is “It isn’t OK to take your sister’s toys. If you take another toy play time is over”.
Punishments need to fit the crime and need to have meaning to the one being punished. Taking away a cell phone because your teen cursed at you is an example of the punishment not fitting the crime. Charging kiddo a quarter every time he curses, or refusing to comply with requests made while cursing is an appropriate punishment. I once worked with a family that used a belt to consequence a child because she wouldn’t wear a jacket. This is another case of the punishment not fitting the crime.
Don’t read this and assume I believe that negative behaviors don’t need consequences. When consequences are used correctly they teach what is OK and what isn’t to children that are still learning. With adults consequences can deter. We get in to trouble though when we want a behavior to increase (such as cleaning a room) and we use punishment only. Remember, punishment is to decrease a behavior. We have to supply positive reinforcement to get the behavior we want.
Try to avoid punishing in anger as then the meaning is lost, especially as it is harder to set a reasonable punishment. Punishments should create an understanding that the behavior was wrong, not that the punisher is a jerk. This can be difficult when you are directly in the situation. You enter a room to find that your kid just colored the walls with crayon and you’re probably going to get a little steamed. At this point you are the one that needs the time out, the time away from the situation to regroup and come back in a healthy way. When you are calm you can set a realistic punishment such a losing the crayons for the rest of the day and helping to clean the walls.
Some of the best punishments are natural consequences of a behavior. When I was 8 I broke a neighbor’s window playing with a ball. I had to tell the neighbor what I did, and do work to earn money to help pay for the window. I was more careful when playing with a ball the next time. We ultimately want to teach kids that there are natural consequences for their actions. I don’t need to punish my kid for not wearing a jacket on a cold day, I just look at her when she complains (well, and with my sense of humor tell her how warm and toasty I am in my jacket). I don’t need to punish my kid for not bathing or brushing their teeth, their peers will make it clear that kiddo isn’t accepted if they stink. I don’t have to yell or switch my kid for a broken window, I need to make them pay for it themselves. If they actually get in trouble with the law, I sponsor them as they move through the system, but the court system will punish them sufficiently for me as long as I don’t rescue them.
Punishment is only effective when used as an adjunct to positive reinforcement. Used alone you will set both yourself and your trainee up for failure. When you find yourself resorting to punishment frequently you will find that you are angry a great deal of the time. When this happens you should probably take a step back, take a deep breath, and re-evaluate what you are doing that isn’t working. Notice I said What YOU are doing, not what your trainee is doing. Rigidity, should’s and must’s are your downfall when doing behavior modification and only sets you up for frustration. It is better to find a behavior that you want to increase and reward that as much as possible than to punish everything you don’t want.