moral baby (part 4) - Swift punishment

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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? Discipline.

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 two types.

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:

The 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:
My 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 actually effective.

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 effective.

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.
No toy for you
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.
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