Punishment and shame don't create positive behavior change. Here's why experts say there's a better way.
How often do we see a "misbehaving" child and think to ourselves, that kid needs more discipline? How often do we look at our own misbehaving child and think the same thing?
Our society is conditioned to believe that we have to be strict and stern with our kids, or threaten, shame or punish them into behaving. This authoritarian style of parenting is characterized by high expectations and low responsiveness—a tough love approach.
But while this type of authoritarian parenting may elicit "obedient" kids in the short-term, studies suggest that children who are shamed or punished in the name of discipline face challenges in the long-term. Research suggests that children who are harshly disciplined or shamed tend to be less happy, less independent, less confident, less resilient, more aggressive and hostile, more fearful and at higher risk for substance abuse and mental health issues as adults and adolescents.
The reason? No one ever changes from being shamed.
Research shows that punishing and shaming kids creates more misbehavior, not less.
Consider this scenario:
You've fallen behind at work. You're under the gun to finish a presentation and turn in an admittedly-sloppy final draft full of careless mistakes. You know you can do better, but you haven't been feeling well, have had insomnia for the past few weeks, and you're having a lot of anxiety about your health which has been interfering with your work performance. Upon reviewing the presentation, your boss storms into your office, slams it down on your desk and yells, "What is this garbage? My kindergartner can do better than this! If you don't have this entire thing redone by tomorrow, you're FIRED!"
How do you feel? You already felt awful and now you've just had a nice dose of shame to compound your feelings of misery. You might work hard to fix the presentation out of fear of being fired, and maybe you'll never turn in a half-baked presentation again, but did your boss's response help address the root of the problem? No. His angry, punitive response made you feel insignificant, misunderstood and angry. Both at yourself and at him.
Now consider this:
Same scenario, except after you hand in the presentation, your boss knocks on your door and asks if he can come in and talk with you for a moment. He sits down and explains that he looked over your presentation and was surprised that it wasn't up to your normal standards. He asks if everything is okay and genuinely seems concerned. You explain that you've had some recent health issues and you've been a bit preoccupied. Your boss listens attentively and empathizes, saying how sorry he is to hear that you've been having a rough time. He explains that you'll have to stay late to revise the presentation but suggests that you take a personal day to get some rest and make an appointment with your doctor.
How do you feel? Seen, heard and understood. Relieved. Cared for. You stay late and work extra hard to fix the presentation. You turn it in with confidence and head home feeling less anxious and empowered to finally see that doctor you've been avoiding.
In the heat of the moment dealing with negative behavior from our child—a huge meltdown over a toy they can't live without, or some action we think they should "know better" than to do—we may instinctively react with shame and punishment, thanks to how prevalent this disciplinary reaction is in our culture. But shame and punishment never result in lasting or positive change. It may seem like the easy way out to yell at our kids, to send them to time out, to shame them with our words and punish them with our actions. But this only disconnects us, creates fear and anger in our children and lessens our influence on them.
We do not need to punish our kids to teach them a lesson, just as we don't need to be punished in order to shift our behavior.
"But how will my child learn to behave?" parents ask.
They learn through our modeling.
They learn through connection, love and compassion.
They learn through being seen, heard and understood.
They learn through consistent and firm limits.
They learn through guidance.
We have to let go of our tired and ineffective all or nothing thinking—If I don't draw a hard line, my kid won't learn how to behave—and we need to embrace a new paradigm—I can have high standards for my child's behavior and tune into and be responsive to her emotional needs. It doesn't have to be one or the other, it can be both.
When we replace the old adage "spare the rod, spoil the child," with the motto, "children need the most love when they're acting the least deserving of it," we will begin to create a new parenting paradigm that will result in happier, healthier and more resilient kids.
Next time your child acts out, instead of reacting with shame or punishment, try getting down on their level, mirroring his frustration by saying something like, "I see you are having a hard time," then giving them a hug. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
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