Punishment: What Is It? And Why Is It A Dirty Word?

Punishment: What Is It? And Why Is It A Dirty Word?

Students of psychology, specifically operant conditioning (think B.F. Skinner), understand that punishment is a stimulus, or aversive event, that occurs after a behavior and that reduces the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. In short, punishment weakens or decreases a behavior.

“Positive” punishments are the introduction of a negative stimulus to decrease behavior. Hitting a child would be an example of “positive” punishment, because pain is introduced in hopes that their behavior will decrease.

“Negative” punishments, or punishments of removal, decrease behavior by removing a positive stimulus. Taking driving privileges from a reckless teen would be an example of negative punishment.

Obviously the two fall in to very different moral categories.

(Reinforcements can also be positive or negative. These are introductions of stimuli to increase behavior, or removals of stimuli to increase behavior, respectively).

We hear a lot in parenting literature that “punishment doesn’t work”, that peaceful parents never punish, and that we should just move “beyond” it. But by definition, punishment does work. By the above definition, if it didn’t decrease the behavior, it wouldn’t be called punishment. (Click for our shocking finding that reinforcers reinforce behavior!)

There’s also a lot of talk about “using reinforcement instead of punishment”, but again, if your technique serves to reduce the targeted behavior, it is punishment.

Let’s look at some examples of punishment:


Your 4 year old is throwing spaghetti at the wall, so you take the spaghetti away.

Your child is caught stealing candy, so you chose not to serve him dessert for a week.

Your teenager decides to get drunk and take your car out on the town, so you take away his driving privileges.

That jerk at work gets caught harassing his coworkers and he gets fired.


What do you think about the examples above? If these responses sound reasonable to you, then you understand the value and necessity of punishment. Withdrawing privileges to reduce behavior IS punishment.

Unfortunately, like a lot of words, “punishment” is poorly defined in our culture. Punishment has become a dirty word, as it is usually associated with aggression. The NAP defines aggression clearly, and we are against it always. The NAP would hold that spanking is the initiation of force, and is immoral, but taking the keys from your drunk teen is not. Both meet the definition of punishment.

The word has such a bad reputation, that even we shy away from it. Instead, we often use the softer and more ambiguous term “negative consequences”.

We must clear up our definitions if we want to live philosophically and ethically. We will continue shaping our children’s environments, establishing clear and fair boundaries, and promoting the use of non-aggressive “negative consequences” or punishments to decrease problem behaviors.

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