The trouble with punishment...

Don’t let physical punishment become your default




I saw a post on Facebook yesterday that re minded me that accurate information about behaviour and the correct application of behavioural principles is so lacking in our society. There have been many posts like the one I saw stating parents have the right to smack their children. As Iwata states, unfortunately for the people making these statements the research fails to provide evidence that this type of treatment is effective in reducing problem behaviour long term. To the contrary it may lead to many side effects that are often over looked. I was saddened by what I saw, but I firmly believe that people do the best they can with the resources and knowledge available to them. Although challenging people’s beliefs may be useful, generally I believe people respond more willingly to someone who appreciates their point of view, but offers alternative solutions without being judgmental.


So, you may ask, why is it that for hundreds if not thousands of years the human race has felt it perfectly acceptable to use physical punishment on children? My reply would be simple – we didn’t know then what we know now. Just because something has been done that way forever and ever doesn’t make it right. At one stage people believed the world was flat, and that butter healed burns. Although this may seem a far cry from smacking your child for being rude, it demonstrates how thinking changes over time with the acquisition of more accurate information. Thanks to science, we have moved forward in our understanding of behaviour and how to alter it - the challenge is to disseminate this information within a climate of suspicion, in a way that is non-threatening and useful.


With any strongly debated subject that is laden with emotive language, we may instinctively feel threatened when our very core beliefs are challenged, and especially when the challenge is made by scientists of all people! Yet science may provide us with a rationale for moving beyond the emotional arguments of anti-smacking, towards planning how we tackle the behaviour. If we can see more clearly without the emotional baggage of our own upbringing, maybe the answers are there in front of us. There’s a common occurrence when you mature and have children, that you either rebel against your upbringing or you embrace it. You hear people say, oh my parents gave me a good whack never harmed me, or alternatively they may say, I will never treat my children like I was treated. This tends to suggest that our decision making is not based on evidence, but rather on what we know and understand. All decision making is value clarification according to Tony Robbins - again suggesting that during the decision making process we may be drawing on what we believe is right, and this may have very little to do with what works or not.


To counter the argument ‘it never did me any harm’, I often used the following scenario in my ethics class with students. I was aware many of the cultures represented in the classes often used physical punishment more openly. The students would say to me what is wrong with a light slap to stop a child touching a stove or moving towards a busy road? First I would say set your child up for success by limiting these sorts of opportunities, be vigilant and think ahead, however life throws curve balls and dangers may occur.


In extreme cases you take action to prevent harm or death and do whatever it takes to protect your child. However, consider this… you have someone weighing 100kgs and someone weighing 50kgs - who would you rather be slapped by? I have trained in martial arts and often had to ask my heavier training partner to lighten up on their attacks or grips as they had no idea they were physically hurting me. People don’t realise their own strength and when you add in anger or frustration, you have a recipe for disaster.


To counter the argument that it is our right as parents to hit our children – consider how children learn – through modelling, watching and taking in everything we do. Hitting your child may inadvertently teach them the exact opposite of what you want. I have seen a vivid depiction of this in a picture of a mother with a child across her knee saying, “I told you not to hit Johnny” as she slaps his behind. Children are soaking up that it is okay to hit someone smaller than you and it is okay to hit someone when they don’t do as you told them to do.


“ The irony of considering the science behind behaviour is it makes us far more compassionate about why people do what they do. ”

Now for some science to back it all up!


Our society revolves around punishment, the need for retribution, the need to feel that someone has paid for their crimes or that justice has been served. The irony of considering the science behind behaviour is it makes us far more compassionate about why people do what they do. We know that all behaviour is the outcome of preceding events or what occurred previously in the learning history of the individual. This may be either reinforcement for appropriate behaviour or punishment of inappropriate behaviour. Unfortunately people may be reinforced by unlikely events, and equally, punished by other unlikely events. For example some people find social contact highly aversive and will avoid it at all costs – to be forced to attend a function and to talk with people may be extremely punishing. People may also be reinforced inadvertently for undesirable behaviour, for example bullying and violence often elevates children or adults to a high ranking status where they are feared, but revered.


Our increasing awareness of the principles of behaviour, and in particular the behavioural technologies at our disposal, is largely due to the experimental analysis of behaviour (EAB). The application of these techniques in the applied setting or in the real world is done by Applied Behaviour Analysts. The overarching philosophy driving these fields is Radical Behaviourism, so called because at the core is the idea that all behaviour is causally determined by preceding events. This basic premise coupled with evidence-based practice and basic behavioural principles enables behaviour analysts to plan for and implement behaviour change programmes. An important element of all behaviour change is adhering to a strict code of ethical conduct. Client responsibilities include using the least intrusive technology and protecting the client from harm, therefore punishment, or the use of any aversive stimuli as it is referred to, is to be considered with caution. As Iwata stated, the main concern is that default technologies such as physical punishment may become the first port of call and this means the client may well be denied the right to a less intrusive intervention that works as well, if not better.


Another point to clarify is terminology – the behavioural definition for punishment is any stimuli that reduces the occurrence of a behaviour. Punishment is defined by its effect on behaviour – if a stimulus (an event or behaviour by someone else) reduces a behaviour then it is a punisher. A punisher is NOT defined by the person administering it. However we seem to think that we can readily identify things that will punish children or adults. Applied behaviour analysts use punishment with extreme caution, as a last resort when all else has failed and then, usually in conjunction with another treatment such as positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviour. There are several key factors that are essential to consider before using punishers and these include the following;


  • Note that the word punishment is used in its colloquial sense

  • Punishment DOESN’T teach the child or adult what they SHOULD do.

  • Punishment can have severe lasting side effects such as aggressive behaviour

  • Punishment may temporarily reduce the behaviour and may reinforce the behaviour of the person administering it

  • Punishment should be administered quickly and calmly, and not at a low level and gradually increased (for example not a light slap that is intensified if it fails to stop the child immediately) (Azrin, 1960)

  • Punishment should be used as a last resort after other treatments have been tried

To be used correctly the punisher must follow the behaviour immediately – this explains why many of our state systems fail miserably because the temporal delay between the ‘crime’ and the ‘punishment’ is too great.


So what is the answer? Well for a start we need to be thinking about how we can inform parents and teachers and the general population about alternatives to hitting children rather than simply telling them what they can’t do. In a sense we are not practicing what we preach – we are punishing them and look at the result – aggressive, angry people who feel their rights are being threatened.

If we want to change any behaviour we need to find out what the reinforcers are for the behaviour and either remove them and teach a new behaviour using the same reinforcer, or provide them contingent on the behaviour we wish to see happening more often. A simple example is inappropriate attention seeking behaviour such as calling out. The teacher frequently provides inadvertent reinforcement by talking to the child, telling them off or drawing attention to them in class. Remove the reinforcement for the inappropriate behaviour and instead provide attention for any little thing that is appropriate such as sitting at a desk, getting their work out or simply smiling at them as they come into the room. Try it with any child and notice how many opportunities there are to provide attention for appropriate behaviour – we frequently don’t notice it because we don’t look for it. Yes, another simple answer that may be very difficult to implement in the real world when time, stress, work and life get in the way. However if we are constantly pitching for this, we will make more good choices than not so good and we will provide a model of how to deal with difficult situations or adversity or wrongs. After all our children watch and observe what we do all the time – not just when we are on our best behaviour! They don’t see our anger and frustration at the behaviour, they see the anger and frustration directed at them and this is the real issue.


Someone quite well known in history once said something along the lines of – lead by example….never a truer word was spoken…



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