As a psychologist who works primarily with children and their families, I occasionally have discussions about appropriate discipline and if parents should engaging in punishment such as spanking. In a recent post from the American Psychological Association (APA), former APA president and psychologist Dr. Alan Kazdin discussed the use of punishment. Below is a brief synopsis from Dr. Kazdin's article.
Punishment in Brief
As a general rule, punishment is not a very effective way of changing behavior, at least in the usual way it is administered. By punishment, I refer to negative consequences after certain behavior (e.g., gentle reprimand, lecture, shouting, or hitting) or removing some positive consequence (e.g., placing the child in time out or away from desirable events, taking away a privilege).
As an aside, gentle, rational, and measured reasoning with a child (e.g., “We do not do that [behavior] in this house,” “What if your sister ruined your toys?” or “You, just violated a Kantian imperative”) are wonderful to teach reasoning and to model parent reasonableness under fire but not very effective as behavior-change techniques.
How to Eliminate Behaviors without Punishment
There is no evidence that punishment is really needed to achieve parent goals or to discipline children. That is a stark statement and saying that it has a strong research base is no consolation.
Here is what we know. There are ways of eliminating behavior that involve directly developing and reinforcing behaviors that are opposite to or incompatible with the behavior one wants to eliminate. The non-technical term is reinforcing positive opposites. This is based on many technical procedures (several differential reinforcement schedules) that have been well studied in human and nonhuman animal research (see references). Essentially, the key point is developing the behavior one wishes rather than focusing on what to eliminate.
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Dr. Turner is a licensed psychologist with expertise in behavioral pediatrics, child mental health, disruptive behavior disorders, and minority mental health. He is also certified as a National Register Health Service Psychologist.