Why Punishing Your Kids Can Be Dangerous

How a parent corrects a child's behavior is always a hotly contested topic. From taking privileges and things away to using timeout as a calming place, every family does it differently.

There is no "one way" to correct behavior. Parents need the freedom to learn about themselves and their children through the correction choices they make. My question to you is, do you have all the facts? Have you considered the emotional ramifications of your correction methods? Have you factored in how your methods may impact your parent/child relationship, now and in the future?

When Timeouts and Punishments Backfire

I will never forget the pain on one dad's face as he stood up during a parenting seminar I was giving and said, "My father recently passed away and I'm mad. Not because he passed away, I'm mad because I didn't get the chance to tell him how much I hated him sending me to timeout for everything! I must have been sent to timeout 15 times a day; it was like being in jail! The more I was sent to timeout, the more resolved I became not to change my behavior!"

Many parents like the idea of timeout till they use it, then they become frustrated by the results. They see no changes in behavior, just more battles. Stacy R. has that dilemma. "Every time I have to put my daughter in timeout it's a battle . . . I mean a big battle. She hits, kicks, pinches . . ."

There is a reason why children react the way they do when being punished or sent to timeout to correct their behavior. Psychotherapist Lisa M. of Barefoot Barn says it perfectly: ". . . using isolation, fear, and punishment doesn't work for nurturing our children to be compassionate, empathetic, and confident kiddos."

In order for a child to learn how to change his behavior, you, the parent, have to first take an honest look at what you're bringing to the method you're using to correct the behavior.

  • If you're angry and yell as you send your child to timeout, he'll react instead of listen.
  • Threatening a child is useless. Because there's no follow-through, he learns to tolerate the threats and just keeps misbehaving.
  • Correcting or punishing a child for crying or a tantrum doesn't make her feel safe or heard, so she just continues crying or throwing a tantrum.

A Better Approach

Many parents realize that what they're doing to correct behavior isn't working but keep doing it because they don't know what else to do.

So what else can you try? It's been proven over and over again that the key to helping a child learn about herself and the world around her is to use boundaries. Boundaries are the touchstone that helps bring a child through an experience. Boundaries help children understand what they are supposed to do, instead of what they've done. Here are two methods that use boundaries to help kids learn better behavior.

Method #1: Making Amends

Young children learn best by seeing the correlation between a mistake and fixing the mistake. They learn they're responsible for their actions and have to make amends, even when they don't want to. (For details, see How to Teach Kids to Learn From Their Mistakes.)

Taking privileges or things away usually causes a big reaction and causes a child to promise the parent anything in order to get a game back. No discovery, understanding, or learning has really taken place. (One exception: if taking things away is working for your child, then keep doing that.)

Method #2: Time, NOT Timeout

Daily life can sometimes get in the way of teaching a child about behavior. Things like being busy with another child, being too angry at the moment, or having no idea how you want to handle things. When that happens, let time, not timeout, work for you.

Have your child go sit in his room. Not for timeout, but so you know where he is when you've calmed down and are ready to talk to him.

While he's in his room, have him think about or write down his version of what happened, what he should have done instead, and how he plans to repair things. When you're ready, go in and talk. If you don't agree with his plan, make him aware of the impact his actions have had on others and work together to make a new plan. There's no need to get mad or ignore him. Stay connected; give hugs, even offer to sit beside him if he needs it. (For details, see How to Make Timeouts Work.)

Now that's what I call teaching!

Sharon Silver is a parenting educator and the founder of Proactive Parenting. She's also the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Discipline Consciously and Become the Parent You Want to Be.