I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s. I often look back at these years in these articles to offer contrast to what life is like now. Shifts in culture and technology have fundamentally changed the lives of children and the role of parents—at times for better, at times for worse.
One big shift has been how people view corporal punishment. When I was a kid, spanking was commonplace. So much so that it was accepted practice in schools. If you got into enough trouble (I did), you got sent to the principal’s office where a strong arm and a wooden paddle waited for you. I moved around a lot growing up, but every elementary school and middle school I went to held this threat over the heads of kids who wouldn’t behave. I spent a semester of high school in a small Texas town. Not only was spanking teenagers an option there, but the principal’s paddle was legendary. He had customized it by drilling large holes in the center to reduce air resistance and increase the speed the wood was traveling when it hit your backside. I’m not sure the physics theory held up in application, but it was well known that the holes created blistering.
I received my fair share of paddling growing up, from school and at home (my mom was partial to wooden spoons). How many times I earned a paddling will remain between me and my calloused rear cheeks. But it was enough that I can easily recall the reactions I had to the experience.
Trudging as slowly as I could towards the chamber of my punishment (the principal’s office or, when at home, the kitchen where the spoons were kept), I was typically filled with dread and fear. I knew the pain was coming, and that walk gave me ample opportunity to baste in the juices of anticipation.
When the punishment came, the pain was usually pretty intense, sharp fire that lingered well after the paddling. But the emotional aspect was central to the experience. Dread and fear instantly transformed into helplessness, anger and shame.
Here’s the thing—the shame was not for what I had done to earn punishment. The shame was for the humiliation of the punishment itself. The humiliation that came from the vulnerability of being struck and not being allowed to stop it. The humiliation of the tears that showed I had been hurt and was too weak to hide it.
One would think that such an intense punishment would have an impact (no pun intended) on my behavior. I think it would, but only initially. Any changes to my behavior did not have to do with me learning a lesson though. It was more about me being emotionally drained and cowed by the experience. Once my emotions (and tail) had recovered, I typically returned to the behavior that had originally gotten me in trouble with one caveat. As I grew older and more experienced, I learned the value of recognizing what behavior got me in trouble and got better at hiding it.
Paddling was not teaching me right from wrong. It was teaching me to be a more effective criminal. If I stole something, I was more discreet in my technique. If I was dishonest, I was more deliberate in how I constructed my lies so that they would be harder and harder to unravel.
As I got better at hiding misbehavior, I got more brazen and willing to experiment. By the time I was in high school, I was out of control and getting caught rarely (though the consequences for when I was caught were high).
I have chosen spanking and my reaction to it as an extreme to illustrate the risk behind punishment.
The dictionary defines punishment as “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.” Psychology has a long history of studying punishment and, as a result, has a much more complex and nuanced view of what punishment is and of its effectiveness.
There are two fundamental types of punishment: positive (punishment by application) and negative (punishment by removal).
Positive punishment is the introduction of something to change behavior. Spanking is a positive punishment.
Negative punishment is the taking away of something to change behavior. Losing TV or video games for a week are negative punishments.
Say you have a rat that likes a particular activity, like using a running wheel, and you want to teach her not to do it. If, every time the rat went to the wheel, she received a shock, you would be applying positive punishment. If, instead, her food disappeared every time she went to the wheel, you would be applying negative punishment.
Now, in our rat experiments, we are likely to find punishment (either positive or negative) to be very effective at changing behavior we do not want. Rats are intelligent and will learn quickly to stay away from the running wheel.
So why didn’t punishment work for me? Am I dumber than a rat?
The answer lies in the concepts of contingency and contiguity.
Contingency is the relationship between the behavior and the punishment. For the rat, every time it went to the running wheel, it received a punishment. There was contingency between the behavior (going to the wheel) and the punishment (shock or loss of food).
This was not the case more me and spanking. True, when I was spanked it was because I had misbehaved. But there were many times that I misbehaved and was not spanked. The relationship between the behavior and punishment was always inconsistent, so there was not strong contingency. What this taught me was not that a given behavior was “bad,” but that the punishment was bad and should be avoided. Misbehavior was ok if I could get away with it.
Contiguity, on the other hand, is the relationship between behavior and punishment across time and space. The rat received the shock the moment it touched the running wheel, creating a clear consequence to that behavior. I, on the other hand, experienced significant delay between misbehavior. Spankings at school would involve a long, slow walk to the office, followed by waiting in a chair outside of the principal’s office, which was then followed by a lecture and then, finally, I would receive my paddling. By then, any thoughts of my original misdeed was crowded out by anticipation of getting spanked.
I can remember other times when I got in trouble at home with one parent and then had to wait until the other parent got home to receive my punishment, often a delay of several hours.
The problem with these scenarios is that the relationship between behavior and punishment is disrupted and becomes more an abstract idea than a visceral experience. For the rat, the shock is immediate and is in the exact spot of the behavior being punished. The reason for the behavior is obvious. For me, there was time for me to contemplate the punishment in isolation of the behavior that led to it. And this led me to look for ways to avoid the punishment—the behavior and its relationship to the punishment forgotten.
The delay also exposes a weakness in human nature. Though we are able to ponder the future and the consequences our actions have on that future, we are like our fellow members of the animal kingdom and are most inclined to react to the moment.
If you are trying to lose weight and are eating ice cream out of the carton as you read this, you know this to be true.
The further in the future the consequence, and the greater the appeal of something in the present, the harder it is to resist a particular behavior.
This is why smokers have a hard time quitting and why cars weave drunkenly into other lanes while their drivers are looking at their phone with full knowledge of the dangers of doing so.
So after all of this, should you punish your child?
I’m no fan of spanking. It is hard for me to expect my daughter to use her words and not be a bully if I strike her.
The research on spanking is complicated. There is a growing consensus that spanking can do lasting harm to children, but researchers are having difficulty creating studies that accurately describe a relationship between spanking and negative outcomes for kids.
There are so many other tools in a parent’s toolbox, resorting to spanking seems unnecessary and crude at the very least, and potentially harmful and cruel at the worst.
But what about other forms of punishment? Any form of punishment, as discussed above, is clearly difficult to do well. And if it is done poorly, it can teach a child to be more effective at misbehavior.
So…should you punish your child?
In my experience, punishment is most effective when used rarely and only in extreme situations. What is more powerful is to use natural consequences to teach a child what behaviors to move away from and which ones to move toward. This requires effective boundary setting and a long-term strategy in how you approach parenting. For a how-to guide on this subject, check out this article.
Punishment is a tool that can be effective when used deliberately and as a small part of a larger parenting strategy. The details of that strategy are very personal and unique between any given parent and their child. Hopefully you find this article and the one on boundary setting useful in designing that strategy that works best for you!