2.2. Swift punishment
Though I don’t want to, I sometimes think of Ted
Bundy. The serial killer did a great deal of his mayhem at the
University of Washington around the same time I was attending as an
undergraduate. A panicky parenting feeling sets in when I remember the
time: How do I keep my kids from being exposed to the Ted Bundys of this
world? How do I know my kids won’t grow up to be like Ted Bundy?
Ted Bundy’s favorite method of murder was a
crowbar to the head, and he often raped his victims after they died. He
may have killed as many as 100 women. Most of us cannot conceive of such
horror and depravity. Bundy’s case was made all the worse because he
seemed perfectly normal. Smart, handsome, and witty, Bundy was on the
fast track in the legal profession, at one point even mentioned as a
future politician. He navigated “proper” society with the ease of
diplomat. There is a haunting photo of him with his girlfriend opening a
bottle of wine, a smiling, caring young man, obviously in love. Yet by
the time that picture was taken, he had already killed 24 women.
Researchers over the years have tried to make
sense of the behavior of people like Bundy. They have no good answers.
There are the usual suspects: broken home and violent, abusive parents,
and Bundy had all of these. But other people do, too, and most don’t
become serial killers. Most so-called psychopaths—people with, among
other traits, an inability to connect emotionally to their
actions—aren’t even violent. Bundy was clearly emotionally competent. He
could not only fake pro-social behaviors, but he had also an abundance
of genuine emotions concerning himself. Narcissistic until the end, he
had to be dragged to Florida’s electric chair on the morning of his
execution, doubled over in terror, sobbing inconsolably with tears he
probably spent years storing up for himself. To this day there are no
good explanations for Bundy’s complete moral collapse.
Ted Bundy knew the rules, but he sure didn’t
follow them. How do we make sure our kids do? How do we correct any
behavior we don’t like—and get the child to internalize the change?
Addition by subtraction: Negative reinforcement
Researchers distinguish between two discipline
strategies: negative reinforcement and punishment. Both deal with
aversive situations, but negative reinforcement tends to strengthen
behaviors, whereas punishment tends to weaken them.
As a child you probably discovered that when you
burn your finger, cold water provides immediate pain relief, removing
the obnoxious experience. When a response pays off, it tends to get
repeated. The next time you got a burn—an aversive stimulus—the
probability multiplied of you running to the nearest sink. This is
negative reinforcement, because your response was strengthened by the
removal (or avoidance) of an aversive stimulus. It’s different from
positive reinforcement, which is when an action leads to such a
wonderful experience, you want to repeat the action. Negative
reinforcement can be as powerful, but it is also trickier to apply.
I knew a preschool girl who craved her mom’s
attention. She started off her terrible twos by throwing her toys down
the stairs on a regular basis, disrupting the entire family. The little
girl seemed to enjoy misbehaving and was soon throwing lots of things
down the stairs. Mom’s books were a favorite target, which, this being
Seattle, proved to be the last straw. Mom tried talking to her,
reasoning with her, and, when these failed, yelling at her. She
eventually brought out the heavy artillery—spanking—but nothing changed.
Why were Mom’s strategies failing? Because her
punishments were actually providing the little girl what she desired
most: Mom’s undivided attention. As difficult as this might seem, Mom’s
best shot at breaking this cycle was to ignore her daughter when she
misbehaved (after first locking away some of the books), destroying this
unholy alliance between the stairs and attention. Instead, Mom would
reinforce her daughter’s desirable behaviors by paying rich, undivided
attention only when she acted in accordance with the laws of the family.
Mom tried it, consistently lavishing praise and attention when the
daughter opened one of the remaining books rather than tossing it. The
throwing stopped within a few days.
Sometimes the situation requires more direct
interventions. For this there is the concept of punishment, which is
closely related to negative reinforcement. The research world recognizes
Letting them make mistakes: Punishment by application
The first type is sometimes called punishment by
application. It has a reflexive quality to it. You touch your hand to a
stove, your hand gets burned immediately, you learn not to touch the
stove. This automaticity is very powerful. Research shows that children
internalize behaviors best when they are allowed to make their own
mistakes and feel the consequences. Here’s one example:
other day my son had a tantrum in the phone store and took his shoes
and socks off. Instead of arguing with him to put them back on, I let
him walk outside a few feet in the snow. It took about 2 seconds for him
to say, “Mommy, want shoes on.”
This is the most effective punishment strategy known.
Taking away the toys: Punishment by removal
In the second type of punishment, the parent is
subtracting something. Appropriately, this is called punishment by
removal. For example, your son hits his younger sister, and you do not
allow him to go to a birthday party. Or you give him a timeout. (Jail
time for crimes is the adult form of this category.) Here’s how it
worked for one mom:
22 month old son threw another fit at dinner tonight because he didn’t
like what was served. I put his little self in time out and let him sit
there until he finished screaming (took about 2 min). Brought him back
to the table and for the first time after one of his fits, HE ATE THE
FOOD! He ate the mashed potatoes and the hamburger from the shepherd’s
pie!! Mommy—1, son—0. WOO HOO!!
Either type of punishment, under proper
conditions, can produce powerful, enduring changes in behavior. But you
have to follow certain guidelines to get them to work properly. These
guidelines are necessary because punishment has several limitations:
• It suppresses the behavior but not the child’s knowledge of how to misbehave.
• It provides very little guidance on its own.
If it’s not accompanied by some kind of teaching moment, the child won’t
know what the replacement behavior should be.
• Punishment always arouses negative emotions
fear and anger are natural responses—and these can produce such
resentment that the relationship may become the issue rather than the
obnoxious behavior. You risk counterproductivity, or even real damage to
your connection with your child, if you punish incorrectly.
How not to punish kids? Try the 1979 movie Kramer vs. Kramer.
The film is about a divorcing couple and the impact of the experience
on their young son. Dustin Hoffman plays the workaholic, unengaged dad
whose parenting instincts have the subtlety of dog food.
The scene opens with the little boy refusing to
eat dinner, instead demanding chocolate chip ice cream. “You’re not
going to have any of it until you eat all your dinner, the dad warns.
The son ignores him, gets a chair, and reaches up for the freezer.
“Better not do that!” dad admonishes. The kid opens the freezer anyway.
“You’d better stop right there, fella. I’m warning you.” The son brings
the ice cream to the table, acting as if his dad were invisible. “Hey!
Did you hear me? I’m warning you, you take one bite out of that, and
you’re in big trouble!” The boy dips the spoon in the ice cream, staring
intently at his father. “Don’t you dare! You put that ice cream in your
mouth, and you are in very, very, very big trouble.” The kid opens his
mouth wide. “Don’t you dare go anywhere beyond that.” When the boy does,
his dad snatches him up out of his chair and throws him in his bedroom.
“I hate you!” the kid yells. The dad shouts, “And I hate you back, you
little shit!” He slams the door.
The coolest heads, obviously, were not prevailing.
The following four guidelines show the way to punishment that’s
It must be punishment
The punishment should be firm. This does NOT mean
child abuse. But it also doesn’t mean a watered-down version of the
consequences. The aversive stimulus must in fact be aversive to be
It must be consistent
The punishment must be administered
consistently—every time the rule is broken. That is one of the reasons
why hot stoves alter behavior so quickly: Every time you put your hand on it, you get burned. The same is true with punishment. The more exceptions you
allow, the harder it will be to extinguish the behavior. This is the
basis of a Brain Rule: Let your yes be yes and your no be no.
Consistency must be there not only from one day to the next but from one
caregiver to the next. Mom and Dad and Nanny and stepparents and
grandparents and in-laws all need to be on the same page regarding both
the household rules and the consequences for disobeying them.
Punishments are obnoxious by definition—everyone
wants to escape them—and kids are unbelievably talented at discovering
loopholes. You can’t give them the opportunity to play one caregiver
against another if you want them to have a moral backbone. All they’ll
form is cartilage.
It must be swift
If you are trying to teach a pigeon to peck on a
bar but delay the reinforcement by 10 seconds, you can do it all day and
the pigeon won’t get it. Shrink that delay to 1 second, and the bird
learns to peck the bar in 15 minutes. We don’t have the same brains as
birds, but whether we are being punished or rewarded, we have remarkably
similar reactions to delay. The closer the punishment is to the point
of infraction, the faster the learning becomes. Researchers have
actually measured this in real-world settings.
It must be emotionally safe
The punishment must be administered in the warm
atmosphere of emotional safety. When kids feel secure even in the raw
presence of parental correction, punishment has the most robust effect.
This evolutionary need for safety is so powerful, the presence of the
rules themselves often communicates safety to children. “Oh, they
actually care about me”, is how the child (at almost any age in
childhood) views it, even if he or she seems less than appreciative. If
the kids don’t feel safe, the previous three ingredients are useless.
They may even be harmful.
How do we know about these four guidelines? Mostly
from a series of experiments whose name and design would be right at
home in a Tim Burton retrospective. They are called the Forbidden Toy
paradigms. If your preschooler were enrolled in an experiment in Ross
Parke’s laboratory, she would experience something like this:
Your daughter is in a room with one researcher and
two toys. One toy is very attractive, aching to be touched. The other
is unattractive, one she’d never play with. As she reaches out to touch
the attractive toy, she hears a loud, obnoxious buzzer. She touches it
again and gets the same unpleasant noise. In some experiments, after the
buzzer sounds, the researcher issues a stern admonishment not to touch
the toy. The buzzer never goes off when your child touches the
unattractive toy, however. And the researcher remains silent. Your
daughter quickly learns the game: The attractive toy is forbidden.
The researcher now leaves
the room, but not the experiment, for your child is being recorded. What
will she do when flying solo? Whether she chooses to obey depends on
many variables, Parke discovered. Experimenters manipulated the timing
between the touch and the buzzer, the script of the authority figure,
the level of perceived aversion, the attractiveness of the toy. From
literally hundreds such manipulations using this paradigm, researchers
discovered the effects of severity, consistency, timing, and safety—the
very guidelines that we just covered.