What is Punishment?

Young father helping her daughter with her school project at homMy almost-17-year-old daughter is in China on a school trip, which prompted me to search out some of the week’s news from that country. Unfortunately, one of the first stories to cross my screen was a tragic piece that could have happened anywhere, and demonstrates how confused the public is about how to respond to problem behavior in children. A great deal of the confusion seems to center on punishment—not only on how to use it, but how to define it.

As the reporter relates the story, a security worker known as Mr. Zhang, tried to punish his daughter for academic cheating, but accidentally killed her in the process. This was not the first time the young girl had cheated in school. According to the reporter, Zhang explained that he had beaten his 11-year-old daughter because she had copied a classmate’s homework “again.” On finding out, her father was furious and “dragged her to the bicycle shed to beat her” on the evening of May 19th. Zhang says he “hung her up with a rope,” beat her legs with another rope for a short time, and left the bike shed. When he returned half an hour later, his daughter was near death. The girl was pronounced dead shortly after being brought in to the hospital. The father, “contrary to much speculation,” says the news report, loved his daughter and “spoiled her from time to time.” No specifics were offered to describe what he had done to spoil her, but perhaps we are meant to believe that the beating would not have been necessary had it not been for the spoiling. The photo accompanying the story shows Mr. Zhang prostrate on the floor, weeping over his daughter’s death.

In a strange way, I am sorry for the father. I’m sorry he was never taught more effective ways of dealing with problem behavior. But I’m much sorrier for his 11-year-old daughter. Tragic examples like these illustrate why it is so important for parents to understand how behavior change works and to consider constructive interventions and strategies as a replacement for “default technologies,” however embedded they may be in a culture. Default technologies are the “tried and survived” behavior-change tactics that worked enough of the time that they provided reinforcement for our parents (and for us) and now we believe they are the “best” ways of changing behavior. Keep in mind that we survive many things that aren’t necessarily the “best” options at our disposal. Yes, maybe you survived the era of no seatbelts . . . but many others didn’t. The fact that you survived doesn’t mean we should go back to the days when they weren’t required. Survival doesn’t prove efficacy, contrary to popular Facebook memes. People survived the Holocaust, for instance. What are we to make of that?

When we become dependent on default technologies, we become rusty at using more creative ones like reinforcement—a strategy that is surprisingly effective and doesn’t leave us open, as parents, to taking things dangerously far.This is not to say that punishment doesn’t have a place. It certainly can work, approached in the right way. But what is punishment? And how is it best used?

In its most precise sense, punishment is something that decreases the future frequency of a behavior. Positive punishment means “adding something,” while negative punishment means “taking something away.” For instance, if you walk carelessly into a dark room and stub your toe, you’re unlikely to make the same mistake again. Stubbing your toe has decreased the future frequency of walking into a dark room without turning on a light—and it’s “positive punishment” because it has added a stimulus: the stubbed toe. On the other hand, when you get a speeding ticket, you have to pay money. You lose something that you like. That’s “negative” punishment (the math kind of negative), because something has been taken away (money), and you’re going to think long and hard about speeding again. On the other hand, if you don’t blink at writing a $300 check to city hall, a ticket might not decrease your behavior. If it doesn’t, the consequence intended as a punishment is not a punisher. Rather, something else is reinforcing the behavior (probably the consequence of getting to your destination faster) and the intervention has no effect.

To avoid repetitive, ineffective attempts at punishment, it’s important for parents to clearly understand what is reinforcing the behavior we don’t want to see. Until we know how the behavior is “helping” our child, any attempt to change it is unlikely to succeed. Another key principle is that we can’t simply teach a child what not to do . . . we also have to teach him or her what to do as a replacement. Punishment works best if you are reinforcing alternate (positive) behaviors at the same time. This is a principle well demonstrated by research.

Using a child’s cheating as an example of a behavior we want to change, the first order of business would be to determine what is reinforcing the cheating behavior. If it’s simply avoidance of work, why doesn’t the child just skip the assignment? More likely, the child also wants to avoid her father’s displeasure at the bad grades that would certainly result from neglecting her homework. By copying a friend’s homework, she avoids her parent’s displeasure (because she gets a good grade on the assignment) but she also avoids doing the work. Maybe she doesn’t believe she’s capable of doing the work. Either way . . . certain consequences have been avoided. Unless, of course, her father finds out.

When he does find out, one way a parent in this position could apply positive punishment (in other words, add something to decrease future cheating), would be to require the girl to do the homework assignment over again each time she copied her classmate’s work. If one of her goals is to avoid work, this is a potentially valid punisher. But remember that punishment works best when paired with reinforcement for an alternate behavior. What alternate behavior would a parent want in this case? Well . . . they would want their daughter to do her homework without copying from a friend. One way to reinforce that would be for a parent to be present while she did the work. The parent could then monitor her progress while also being available to answer any questions she may have and offer social support as she works.

Does this seem like a “reward”? Think again. It’s positive reinforcement, which is rather different. Having a supportive parent in the room to answer questions is reinforcing the current behavior of doing the homework herself . . . not the already past behavior of copying her classmate’s homework. This kind of immediate reinforcement is especially important at the beginning stages of behavior change. But, of course, if the child receives good grades as a result of her parent’s help, the preferred behavior is going to be even further reinforced by her accomplishment, as well as by her parent’s approval.

A bonus side-effect of using a constructive behavior-change approach is that the child is more likely to trust the parent’s future responsiveness and less likely to resort to lying, sneaking around, or other problem behaviors often employed in the aim of circumventing physically painful punishments. It’s a natural, human reflex to want to avoid pain. Of course, that doesn’t make lying or cheating right. Simply “natural,” like a parent’s tendency to go further than necessary when caught up in the throes of emotion.

Why is it so tempting for parents to rely on risky default technologies when it comes to addressing children’s behavior? One reason is that we receive automatic reinforcement for using them, because they seem to work in the short term, and the short-term consequence is what we associate most strongly with our action. We may be aware of the fact that there are long-term side effects to some types of punishment—such as the potential to stir up strong, destructive emotional responses in the learner. And we may be aware of the danger in modeling undesirable behavior ourselves. But it’s not always easy to see that we have other, more effective options.

Yet we do. And it’s well worth adding some of them to our parenting repertoire.

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SEE ALSO:

Bye-Bye Boot Camp: Positive Parenting for Challenging Kids

April 1, 2014—Having children is not a prerequisite for having strong opinions about childrearing, so it’s not remarkable that when we do have children, we can be a bit defensive about our parenting style. This is true even when it seems to be working well; but what if our child’s behavior seems particularly challenging? Because we take our responsibility seriously, we may focus on who or what is to blame, rather than on what we can do to improve the situation. We may even wonder whether it can be improved. Is a noncompliant toddler doomed to become a challenging adolescent? Worse, if we have a defiant teenager—one who refuses to comply with requests or follow rules of conduct—do we have any real chance of producing the result we want for him or her?
(Full story . . . )

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