Punishment and discipline methods have changed significantly over the years. Well-meaning parents have passed down child-rearing techniques and parenting advice from generation to generation, and we often hear statements like, “That’s what my parents did, and I turned out ok’.”
The truth is that over time, research has shown us what is and isn’t effective in terms of behavior management strategies for children and teens. We now hear phrases such as “positive punishment,” “positive discipline,” and “gentle parenting.”
So, what is positive discipline, and how does this work as punishment for defiant teenagers?
Discipline vs. punishment: What is the difference?
In very simple terms, discipline involves teaching and training people to follow rules and adhere to a particular code of behavior. We hear this word most often when talking about children and teens because those years are crucial for ensuring that kids and young adults learn what is expected of them to function appropriately in society.
There is no escaping the fact that we have laws, rules, and socially accepted norms that must be followed if a person is to experience a long and happy life. Without learning these rules and expectations, children and teens will be at risk of living a life of adversity, including an increased likelihood of experiencing trouble with the law, substance abuse, and poor relationships.
Punishment is a form of discipline often used as a strategy to stop undesirable behavior. There are many different kinds of punishment, and some practices are far more effective than others. All people will face consequences in life—as we know from physics, there is a natural process of cause and effect.
What is the difference between positive and negative punishment?
While positive punishment might sound like something gentle and nurturing, that is definitely not always the case. Positive punishment works by presenting a negative consequence to the child or teen after they have exhibited an undesirable behavior. The goal here is for the child to not repeat that behavior in the future.
Here’s an example of positive punishment: when a teenager is being disruptive in class, the teacher scolds him publicly, and as a result, the student feels shame and humiliation. While in this circumstance the strategy might be effective at stopping the behavior, it is not actually beneficial for the teacher/child relationship and could have a very negative impact on that teenager’s self-esteem and overall wellbeing.
Other kinds of common positive punishments include giving chores, lecturing, reprimanding, adding more rules, grounding, or forms of writing (such as having to write an essay about the behavior).
An easy way to remember what positive punishment is is by viewing it as two negatives making a positive. In other words, a negative behavior paired with a negative consequence should equate to a positive outcome, hence positive punishment.
Negative punishment, on the other hand, involves the removal of a particularly desirable object or stimulus after the display of some undesirable behavior. A common example of this could be taking away your teen’s phone after they have been disrespectful or (my personal favorite!) turning off the WiFi.
How does positive punishment for teenagers work?
The ultimate goal of any punishment is to stop a particular behavior. Positive punishment is based upon a principle known as operant conditioning, which refers to a learning method where behavior is controlled through either reward or punishment. This is often referred to as “learning by consequences” but also includes the use of positive reinforcement to encourage the good behavior that we want to see more of.
While some kinds of positive punishment are no longer considered appropriate (think smacking or spanking), it can also include natural consequences that are unpleasant but help the child or teen learn to behave differently.
This can be seen when a child touches a hot stove and burns themselves or when an adolescent receives a parking ticket for ignoring a no-parking sign. These consequences are certainly not enjoyable, but they exist as important learning opportunities for people of all ages.
So, what is negative and positive reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is a very effective strategy for teaching a person new behavior. It involves adding a desirable stimulus or outcome to increase the likelihood of the person increasing that behavior.
Some examples of positive reinforcement include praise for being kind, a paycheck for work done, or a great grade after working hard on an assignment. All of these things encourage the person to keep working hard or behaving in the desired way.
On the other hand, negative reinforcement involves the removal of an undesirable stimulus or outcome to increase a behavior. A simple example would be applying sunscreen before going to the beach to avoid getting burnt. This action means that the negative outcome will be avoided, and, therefore, the person is likely to continue applying sunscreen when required, thus reinforcing this behavior.
Negative reinforcement is often confused with negative punishment. The difference between the two lies in the end result. With reinforcement, adding or taking something away is supposed to increase the behavior. In terms of punishment, the adding or taking away of something is meant to decrease or stop the behavior.
A little more about operant conditioning
Operant conditioning is sometimes referred to as “Skinnerian conditioning” because it’s a concept first described by pioneering behaviorist B.F Skinner.
Skinner believed that it wasn’t necessary to consider internal thoughts and motivations to explain behavior, focusing instead on observable and external causes of human behavior. He was especially interested in how the consequences of people’s actions directly influenced their behavior and used the term “operant” to describe any behavior that generates a consequence.
In the simplest of terms, any action followed by reinforcement will be strengthened, thus becoming more likely to occur again in the future. Skinner’s research into positive and negative punishment and reinforcement is still considered relevant and applicable today.
You can watch a short video about this concept here:
But what does this mean for parents?
While there’s no single right way to parent, drawing on Skinner’s research to use a range of strategies that include positive and negative punishment alongside positive and negative reinforcement seems to be the most effective way of teaching children and teens the behaviors we want them to demonstrate.
The bottom line is that punishment and reinforcement can either be very effective or very ineffective, depending on the individual child or teen and how it is applied.
Using a common-sense approach, parents can determine what punishments are most effective for their teens and use reinforcement strategies to encourage good behavior.
The term “punishment” might make some uncomfortable or sound like a bad thing, but it certainly does have an important place in psychology.
Punishment is really a part of living and learning and is important for teaching us about natural consequences, socially appropriate behaviors, and morality. We also know that if children and teenagers learn to behave appropriately while they are young, the chances of them experiencing more severe punishments (such as a jail sentence) later in life are drastically reduced.
- If you would like to know more about Skinner’s research into human behavior, check out his book About Behaviorism.
- Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Re-establish Authority and Reclaim Love by Scott P. Sells provides practical advice for parents to amass the tools they need to establish boundaries, build respect, and strengthen the relationship they have with their teenager.
- Positive Discipline: The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation, and Problem-Solving Skills by Jane Nelson is a valuable reference for adults working with children. The author’s approach is underpinned by mutual respect, and her years of experience as a distinguished psychologist make her a trusted person to coach parents and teachers on discipline practices and techniques.