Punishing Misbehavior in Kids

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie, Psychiatrist and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Columbia University, talks about punishment in the family: what's appropriate and what's not, what works for children at different ages and how to make sure when you punish for one incident, it's not because you're actually mad about something else. And Dr. Guthrie gives advice and takes questions on proper, constructive family punishment. 


Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie

Comments [26]


This program was upsetting. Why are children compared to criminals? Why would anyone hurt/punish (all punishment hurts to some degree - that is the point) someone they love and who loves them, someone who depends on them to show them how the world works? The alternative to punishment is not praise ... that is still an attempt to control another's behavior. What we want to do is help our children make good decisions with their own minds (albeit limited in ideas, that's OUR job) about their own behavior, be a trusted guide and facilitator of their learning. This sort of relationship is not possible to build if the parent is willing to hurt the child. It is entirely possible to live well with a child helping the child in ways the child wants to be helped - it takes effort and good morality in a parent to learn to do so. Though perhaps those things don't occur easily for people who have been "raised" being hurt.

Aug. 13 2014 07:54 PM
Donald J. Sepanek from Bayonne, NJ

I don't want to be a "but-insky", but my answer to Liz from Brooklyn is that lying and being sneaky are side effects of punishment - the boy is behaving to avoid the punishment. Try a more positive approach in disciplining your son - more reinforcement.

Aug. 13 2014 04:46 PM
Donald J. Sepanek from Bayonne, NJ

I appreciate your guest's comments, but it would have been better if you had a behaviorist on instead of a developmentalist. After all, it was behaviorists like Skinner (Science and Human Behavior, Beyond Freedom and Dignity) who pioneered the idea of a non-punitve approach to shaping rule governed behavior by accentuating the use of positive reinforcement.

Aug. 13 2014 04:37 PM

To Lucy from Chicago. Four seems very young to me to have a tennis coach. How about stopping with the coach and playing with your child instead? If you're sending your 4 yr old to a coach because you don't have time, it's time to rethink your schedule to make sure you have time to play with her - or find an activity for her that provides more "free range" playing with other children, with age appropriate supervision.

Aug. 13 2014 12:22 PM

What about children with disabilities or behavior disorders, such as ADHD or children who have difficulty understanding or following through with instructions? I know a family with a son who has both of these issues and growing up it seemed like he was always getting away with things. Now he's a teenager and his parents apparently sometimes have difficulty with discipline. Or maybe teenagers just don't listen.

Aug. 13 2014 12:06 PM

Tit-for-tat, reward & punishment childrearing sounds rigid and authoritarian, and misses the big picture; how about talking about kids' behavior in a bigger context, like (for kids who are old enough) what kind of person / friend/ student the child wants to be, and how the behavior fits with that, and how a particular behavior affects the child's relationship with other people?
For example, many undesirable behaviors lead to rejection (temporary or long-term) from peers. He/she may not be included in or invited to things they like if they are being difficult. If they aren't good guests, they may not be invited to playdates.
A helpful thing with kids is to discuss what behaviors are desired just before an event - if you're going in to a store, explain that there will be many things the child wants to buy, but you are only there to buy things you need for dinner. Remind the child to greet parents upon entering a home, and to say 'thank you' when leaving the home.

Aug. 13 2014 12:01 PM

My parents had 8 children. They spanked us. The older children picked up the habit and spanked the younger ones. As a parent, I did not spank. Nor did my children. Children copy adult behavior. Being firm and consistent with eye contact works. Having too many children often produces needy children who are constanly competing for scarce parental attention. If you have a big family - DO NOT make the older children become your constant babysitters - they deserve to be children too - not substitute "teen parents."

Aug. 13 2014 11:58 AM
Lucy from chicago

It's not misbehaving, but not sure how to stop a behavior in my 4 year old. She seems to have a crush on her tennis coach and keeps telling me that he loves her, she just knows and she wants to wear certain clothes for him....

Aug. 13 2014 11:58 AM
Truth & BEauty from Brooklyn

@ Steve from NJ: :-)

Aug. 13 2014 11:57 AM
Susan Brown from New York City

To the man who believes in corporal punishment and says his children are well adjusted and in the military, sure gives me a new vision on the military. And do you wonder why so many are violent, come back with PTSD? That was horrific. How could a parent do that? It just seems a weak response.

Aug. 13 2014 11:57 AM
tim from NYC

Has social media and social networking changed any theories? For instance, would removing access to internet/smart phone/texting be a good or bad punishment?

Aug. 13 2014 11:57 AM
John from Suffolk Co.

Make an effort to correct behavior before it becomes "misbehavior." With younger kids especially, you can usually see them heading towards a bad decision from miles away. Help them reset their course and then praise the hell out of them for doing the right thing.

If a kid does misbehave, and you threaten punishment if they don't correct themselves, you have to be ready to deliver the punishment if the kid still acts out. I see a lot of parents with unruly kids in public places who threaten, "If you don't settle down, we're leaving." Then the kids keep acting like jerks, but the parent's bluff has been called. They don't leave, and the kid has learned very well that he or she can get away with anything.

Aug. 13 2014 11:56 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I think a spanking - on the tush - serves more as sensory stimulus than actual punishment. Many children get so caught up in the moment or the activity in which they are engaging, that the spanking serves like a slap in the face - just to "re-boot," as it were, the attention of the child. The tush is cushioned and doesn't really get injured, but the child then pays attention to the new circumstance - i.e., the after-being-spanked circumstance.

Beyond that, hitting can be a problem, but once a child has had the initial spank, then it is time to sit the child down and discuss the issue at hand as well as suitable punishment for various infractions, i.e., no TV, etc.

Aug. 13 2014 11:56 AM
Alison from Yorktown Heights

and do you say ''Don't hit'' (friend, younger sibling) while spanking or hitting with the spoon?

Aug. 13 2014 11:56 AM

"the more you beat them, the more tender they become." -- cute saying, but totally NOT true.

Aug. 13 2014 11:54 AM
Steve from NJ

@ Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn: I completely agree! She sounds so condescending with her speech pattern. You'd think she would be aware of this, considering her job. I think with that upward sweep of tone at the end of sentences she could upset a lot of clients.

Aug. 13 2014 11:51 AM

What about children with disabilities or behavior disorders, such as ADHD or children who have difficulty understanding or following through with instructions? I know a family with a son who has both of these issues and growing up it seemed like he was always getting away with things. Now he's a teenager and his parents apparently sometimes have difficulty with discipline. Or maybe teenagers just don't listen.

Aug. 13 2014 11:50 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Please tell Dr. Guthrie to stop ending every sentence and phrase with a question mark. REALLY annoying.

Aug. 13 2014 11:49 AM
Edgar Allen Poe from Baltimore

Children are never too tender to be whipped. Like tough beefsteaks, the more you beat them, the more tender they become.

Aug. 13 2014 11:47 AM
Mike from Pawling, NY

Parenting is intimate relationship, which teaches our children about power, decision-making, responsibility and courage. Most of our parents used either autocratic or democratic parenting styles.

Parents who employ a democratic parenting style view the use of power in relationships differently than autocratic parents. Democratic parents treat their children as equals in dignity and respect while accepting, understanding and accounting for their child’s developmental differences. These parents believe, that while no child should be hurt by an adult, children may feel and/or act hurt when parents say, “No, you cannot play with matches, or use drugs.” Democratic parents set limits and boundaries and follow through with firm and fair consequences, which are logically related to the child’s misbehavior. These parents empower their child, respect their child’s right to choose and help their child learn about power as they experience the consequences their misbehavior. As these children grow toward adult life, they learn to accept more power and exercise more choice. They become more involved, encouraged, confident and responsible adult decision-makers.

Parents who employ an autocratic parenting style use power to control and/or punish their child. Autocratic parents do not view their child as equals in dignity and respect, but rather view themselves as the final authority, who make, then inform their child or adolescent of their decision. While these parents are not abusive, they may view spanking or slapping their child as a justifiable form punishment. The punishment is often arbitrary, logically unrelated to the misbehavior and without opportunity for restitution or reconciliation. Children in autocratic and punitive homes learn that someone more powerful can control the less powerful and make decisions for them.
As young adults they are often described by adults as ‘irresponsible’, when in fact, they are as ‘responsible’ as the adults in their lives allowed them to be. Absent the necessary opportunity to learn about personal power, choice and responsibility, these children often enter adult life feeling discouraged, unconfident and ambivalent about their choices.

As parents we might ask ourselves: “What is my child learning from me about power, fairness, negotiation, decision making and responsibility?” “What is my child learning about politics from me?” If you are interested in learning more about Democratic Parent Skills ask your school counselor or local counseling center. Frank Main (1985), Perfect Parenting and other Myths along with Dinkmeyer, D., Carlson, J. (1999), The Parents Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting are two excellent resources for parents.

Aug. 13 2014 10:51 AM

In my clinical practice I teach parents to be better at raising their child and one thing I do is explain the difference between a penalty and a punishment. Penalties are clearly defined rules that children live with (a deduction from their allowance for example). Meanwhile punishments are about fear--typically involving beating (i.e. spanking) a child. Punishments, being fear-based, don't work in the long run. What they do do is make parents feel better (I'm so mad I'm going to show you who's boss!") and make children feel worse. It's never worked and it never will.

Aug. 13 2014 10:23 AM

there is a common theme in AF/Amer & and certain Latino circles,that corporal punishment plays a necessary and even constructive role in child rearing and development. the narrative is "I'll take a switch to my child before he/she acts in a dangerous way around white people". i get it,but i'm troubled by the fact that it's sort of taboo to talk about the psychological damage that this must inflict on many. the historic explanation,should not blot out the sociologic reality. they do indeed coexist, and subsequently, should be open to intelligent discourse.

Aug. 13 2014 10:06 AM


Aug. 13 2014 09:40 AM
Palisades from Westchester County

It is wrenching to see parents publicly shaming and/or hitting their kids in public. They seem angry and out-of-control, or close to it. This isn't constructive for teaching a child self-control.
Most of the time when I see parents being very angry at little kids, it is for behaviors that are developmentally appropriate or for things a child needs to learn about. The kids often don't even realize what they've done, and are just getting yelled at - they aren't hearing anything but the fact that their adult is angry.
Parents, please consider explaining instead of yelling, and instructing a child on what the desired behavior is. Criticize the behavior, not the child.

Also, PLEASE instruct your children on good manners publicly! Teach him or her AT ALL AGES to greet adults they know, to say 'Please' and 'Thank you' and how to be a good guest. It's so important for a child to have confidence in social situations, and to see the positive reception they get when they interact well with adults. Practice making eye contact with them in conversation. Teach them to respond with more than one-word answers, and to return a conversation question: "How are you?" " Good! And how are you?", not just "Good."

I can't say how often I encounter friends with their kids who don't correct their kids' behavior (politely and gently) when they don't say 'Hello' back, or don't respond in social interactions.

Even the shyest of children needs this kind of instruction, even if he/she can't execute the behavior yet, contestant reinforcement will eventually lead to good behaviors.

Aug. 13 2014 09:37 AM
Estelle from Brooklyn

To Liz:

One thing that's helpful--never ask whether he did such and such because then he will deny it. Tell him that you know what he did and ask him to explain. You could also ask him why it's wrong and how he can make amends.

Aug. 13 2014 09:19 AM
Liz from Brooklyn

What can a parent do about a 13 year old boy who lies and is very sneaky. Other kids report behavior he will never admit to, we have no proof other than the other child's testimony, but similar behavior is reported over and over. Our son will deny it and stick to his story under pressure.

Aug. 13 2014 09:11 AM

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