Why punishment “sucks”

Where did we ever get the idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?  Jane  Nelson


I avoid the terms “discipline” and “punishment” in my work with parents and children. Over the years I have realised that parents often associate these terms with payback for bad behaviour or needing to inflict pain (emotional or physical or both) on the child in order to teach him or her a lesson. I much prefer the terms “guidance” and “education”. It implies a gentler approach.

I also avoid the terms “bad behaviour”, “poor behaviour”, “misbehaviour”. Children make mistakes, so I use the term “mistaken behaviour” instead, which I pinched from Dan Gartrell.

When parents talk to me about how they correct their children’s mistaken behaviour, I introduce the concept of a suck-o-meter. On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is “doesn’t suck at all” and 10 is “sucks really bad”, from the child’s perspective, where would the particular punishment or discipline rate?

Case Example

Mum of many children. One child had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and was receiving medication.  I checked with Mum and she was on top of all of the medical treatment for her child’s ADHD, which is great. ADHD is a serious disorder which has implications for a child’s long-term mental health and should be treated early just as you would any other developmental challenge.

But still, she said she was experiencing extreme behaviour. Mum was tired, emotionally and physically spent, and her other children were copying the boy’s mistaken behaviour. She just did not know what to do with him. The boy was constantly in trouble at preschool for his impulsive behaviour. Many 4 year-olds have difficulty controlling their impulsive urges, a child with ADHD has extra challenges in this department.

Mum went on to tell me how they dealt with the preschool behaviour at home.

Every day after preschool, the teacher would give Mum a long talk about all the things the child did wrong during the day, whilst the child stood at Mum’s feet. When they got home, Mum would interrogate the boy about why he did the things he did at preschool, and tell him how bad he had been that day. When Dad got home from a long day at work, Mum would give Dad the report from preschool and Dad would have a go at putting some sense into the boy about his behaviour. Mum would also tell the grandparents and the neighbours each day about the boy’s behaviour and they would give him a lecture about how he needed to do better, and try and extract from him why he did the things he did. This was all in the name of “punishment” because he must be punished for what he did. But, for all of his punishment he still couldn’t get it right, he was angry, sullen, and caught in a cycle of negative behaviour.

Stop right there!

If you were a 4 year-old boy and you had made some mistakes during the day, and the preschool teacher had pulled you up for them, how would you feel to have everyone else around you, the people who care about you the most, reminding you of how much you stuffed up?

Where does that rate on the suck-o-meter?

Where is the space for the child to get something right?

How would you feel if you had stuffed up and the first thing everybody said to you was how bad you were, asked you why you did it, and told you how you needed to improve your behaviour?

Mum had done a Triple P group that I facilitated, so I told her straight away to take the following steps (I don’t usually “tell” parents what to do, but this child was at serious risk of falling into a pit of despair and shame, and Mum was up for the challenge because she really did want the best for him)…

– Leave preschool at preschool. Punishing a child for what happened at preschool (or school) when the teacher has already dealt with it, is double punishment, and that sucks. No more chats with the preschool teacher at the end of the day about the boy’s bad behaviour. If she must know what went on at preschool, I suggested a communication book where the teacher could write down all of the “bad” stuff. But I insisted on a column where the teacher had to write all of the “good” stuff the child did during the day, because I’m sure he did some of that too, it was just that no-one was looking for that. I work with some tricky kids in school and one of the first things I ask them is “what have you done well this week?”.

– If Mum had to have a chat with the preschool teacher at the end of the day, whilst the child was at her feet, it had to be about the good stuff, and only the good stuff. Any concerns could be addressed at a meeting with the teacher quite separate to drop-off and pick-up time.

– Mum and Dad and everybody else were to use descriptive praise with the child when he did something well. I wanted them to be on the look-out for positive behaviour. Forty years of research has proven that if you pay attention to a child’s positive behaviours, he or she will do more of them.

– The mistaken behaviour at home is dealt with at home, and we don’t broadcast that to the world either. We went through the guidelines for consequences for mistaken behaviour from the Triple P manual. Consequences should: be consistent and predictable; be immediate; be related to the mistaken behaviour; be fitting for the age and developmental stage of your child; encourage your child to behave well; not threaten your child’s self esteem; and be realistic.

I also recommended that the family go to see a highly respected clinical psychologist who has 18 years experience working with children and adults with ADHD, and has achieved her doctorate on the subject. Mum made an appointment that afternoon.

I saw Mum a few weeks later. All credit to her for making the necessary changes, because change is hard. She said that her son had done a complete turnaround in his behaviour. Mum was beaming, a smile from ear to ear. She said that the preschool teacher could not believe how much the child had changed within a week. The child was a much happier boy, free to be creative and intelligent and sociable. The tension was reduced at home.

This is why I love teaching positive parenting. It makes a difference in children’s lives, in parent’s lives. The little boy could have carried all of that negativity with him into school the following year. The adults in his life were limiting him to his ADHD diagnosis and not examining their contribution to his mistaken behaviour. He could have had a life of being misunderstood. Prior to our positive intervention,what were the prospects for the boy in creating a positive outlook on his life, sustaining rich and rewarding relationships, and achieving his potential? What might they be now?


Narelle Smith


how children learn



Categories: Managing Mistaken Behaviour


2 replies

  1. This is a nice read. I guess what parents really need it the proper way to handle their kids when things gets on their nerves. I admit it is really hard to keep cool when you are on your limit of patience. I just realize that I really need to research more about raising my kids without the “punishment” sometimes.

    • Hi Denise

      Thank you for your comment.

      I totally agree, when you know better you do better. Sometimes knowing better involves going to an evidence-based parenting programme like Triple P or Circle of Security, and throwing in a dash of emotion coaching.

      Triple P is brilliant in that it has a two-pronged approach. We focus on building relationship and have specific positive strategies for building new skills and guiding kid’s with their mistaken behaviour. The creators of Circle of Security believe that all you need are relationship skills and everything else falls into place. From my own experience raising kids, I believe 80% is relationship, and 20% is correcting mistaken behaviour.

      A lot of our responses to children’s mistaken behaviour are based on our negative attributions about child behaviour. Once you know how their brains work (https://handsheartsminds.wordpress.com/2013/05/11/a-quick-tour-through-the-inner-workings-of-your-childs-brain/), start having reasonable expectations of your children, and take some time to stand in their shoes, it all gets a little bit easier.

      Kind Regards


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