Parenting and Punishment, A Psychological Perspective

By Riya Surekha Mishra

How do you discipline your child?

When asked these questions, parents will have two popular responses to choose from. Some have beliefs in talking to their children while others may believe in punishment. Some parents use a combination of both techniques depending upon the severity of the child’s misbehaviour. Punishment for children can range from taking away a favourite toy, making them stand against a wall, yelling or cursing and the most extreme of all, physical abuse.

We all understand and agree with the importance of disciplining children at a premature age but often parents don’t know how far the punishments should go. They don’t recognize the precise way of punishing children, extremely aggressive or delinquent children and youth. Parents of delinquent youth are often unaware of how to achieve desirable behaviours without screaming or hitting their children. (Patterson et al., 1982.)

This belief is at times so deep-rooted within Indian parents that any type of deviation by the child in confirming to their values is seen as rebellious. This kind of parenting with no space for self-expression and harsh It has been a popular opinion that corporal punishment is the most effective, especially in countries like India where there is rarely any education about parenting available to prospective parents. Parents here get their information by examples of their parents or other parents around them. Parenting classes are not general here as they are in the West. Parents might even take offence if you offer such a class or point out flaws in their parenting style, emphasizing that they know the best. Indeed, parents want the best for their children, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know the best.

The punishments are fertile grounds for strained familial relationships, untrustworthiness and miscommunication. Parents are our primary caretakers and the nature of our relationship with our parents influences all our relationships in this future.

So, parents’ interaction with children must be that of trust, empathy and sensitivity while being firm and authoritative. They should steer their children through examples and be consistent in their behaviour. The values they impart should be congruent with their actions otherwise it will create a dissonance in the child who will not be able to tell which actions are desirable and which actions will call for punishment. For eg:- A parent punishes their child for lying but they lie to get out of a situation. In this place, the child will not quite perceive why they are being punished and will believe they are being unfairly treated.

Before we delve deeper into this topic, it is significant to understand what punishment means because it is a misunderstood term. Punishment in psychology is a tool used to decrease the frequency of or completely stop undesirable behaviour. It is a very crucial component of learning. Punishment in itself is not a destructive thing, as it is commonly believed to be.

American behavioural psychologist B.F Skinner has carried out the theory of operant conditioning according to which an organism learns a behaviour by the positive or negative associations with the consequences of the behaviour. The two components of operant conditioning are reinforcement and punishment.

Through reinforcement, an organism learns to increase the frequency of desirable behaviour by adding a rewarding or positive stimulus in their environment or removing a negative stimulus from their environment. Through punishment, the frequency of undesirable actions is reduced by either adding a negative stimulus to the environment or removing an effective stimulus from the environment. It can be comprehended with the help of the following table.

ReinforcementPunishmentPositiveA positive stimulus is added to the surrounding to increase desirable behaviour. For eg: Clapping after the child successfully recites a poem A negative stimulus is added to the surrounding to decrease undesirable behaviour. For eg: A child has to sit in detention for writing on desks. NegativeRemoving a negative stimulus from the surrounding to increase desirable behaviour. For eg: Switching off the television during study timeA positive stimulus is removed from the surrounding to decrease undesirable behaviour. For eg: Taking away a child’s favouritetoy because they did not finish homework.

Punishment is effective in decreasing the frequency of undesirable behaviour only if it is prompt – follow undesirable actions as quickly as possible. It must be certain to occur. If the same action goes unpunished some times, the person will not learn to stop it. For instance, a child is scolded for tearing pages from a book but sees their parent do the same without any repercussions.

It must be equivalent to the negative action in magnitude. If a child is made to stand outside class the entire day for talking in class, they will learn school or their teacher are bad. Similarly, if a child is only given a glare for not finishing homework, they will learn that not completing work on time doesn’t have any serious consequences.

It must be perceived as justified or deserved by the recipient. Incentives to increase positive behaviour. The child should understand the reason they are being punished is not that parents or adults have the power to punish them. They are being punished because they engaged in bad behaviour. The reason why their behaviour is bad should also be explained for punishment to be effective. They must understand and agree with your logic for punishing them. The important thing to note here is to not use force to make them agree, use logic.

Physical abuse as punishment is never the answer. No mistake made by the child justifies hitting them or verbally abusing them. Cursing your child for swearing and hitting your child for aggressive behaviour is hypocrisy. The child will never learn anything good from it. However satisfactory it may seem, this method is unsuccessful. In the end, parents need asking themselves why they are resorting to physical force? If the child is old enough to reason with then communicate with them. If the child is not old enough to reason with then hitting them will not teach them anything good.

Here are four major drawbacks of physical punishment (Gershoff, 2002; Marshal, 2002):

(i) Punished behaviour is suppressed not forgotten. This temporary state may (negatively) reinforce parents’ punishing behaviour.

For eg: The child may continue writing on walls in school, where parents are not present to swat him. The child does not write again on the walls of their house. Parents believe they have successfully stopped this behaviour and will continue to use swatting as a form of punishment. The child may continue writing on walls in school, where parents are not present to swat him.

(ii) Punishment teaches discrimination among situations.

For eg: The child will learn the same behaviour is punishable in some circumstances and not in others. So a child may swear with their peer groups where this behaviour is reinforced not punished and they will not swear in front of their parents where this behaviour promises punishment.

(iii) Punishment can teach fear.

For eg: A child will grow to be afraid of parents. They will be afraid of not only the undesirable but also the person who enforces punishment. This may lead to secrecy and repression of emotions in the child and the future they will be hesitant to ask for guidance or help from their parents.

(iv) Physical punishment may increase aggression by modelling aggression as a way to cope with problems.

For eg: Many delinquents come from aggressive families. They may learn that using physical force is acceptable because parents are doing so. If a child is teased by their classmates, they will slap them, just the way their parents would slap them if they used bad language at home.

Any mental health professional will suggest that parents do not use physical abuse as a form of punishment as it leads to a plethora of development problems. Here is some advice on effective ways of disciplining include (O’Leary, 1995; Brazelton & Sparrow, 2003; Flouri, 2005) :

❏ For most parents, authoritative parenting works best. Parents should be firm and consistent, providing clear direction for desirable rules. Authoritative disciplinarians provide rules, but they explain why those rules make sense, using language that children can understand.

Spanking (any form of hitting/physical abuse) is never an appropriate technique. Not only is spanking less effective than other techniques in curbing undesirable behaviour, but it leads to additional, unwanted outcomes, like the potential for more aggressive behaviour.

Use time-out for punishment, in which children are removed from a situation in which they have misbehaved and are unpermitted to engage in enjoyable activities for a set period.

Tailor parental discipline to characteristics of the child and the situation. Try keeping the child’s particular personality in mind and adapt discipline to it.

Use routines (like bath time routine or bedtime routine) to avoid conflict. Gain compliance of the child by making routines predictably enjoyable, thus persuading a resistant child. For eg: reading a bedtime story before sleeping.

Punishment is essentially for rehabilitation, not retribution. We are not following the principle of ‘an eye for an eye.’ We want our children to learn to differentiate between good and bad behaviour so that they can be functional and contributing members of society. We want them to be able to live a dignified life where they do not become a cause to someone else’s distress. For this, parents must understand how their behaviour is affecting the child. Children also learn from modelling and imitation, parents being the first adult models. They will learn from their examples and try to act similarly.

Physical abuse can be very traumatic for children and can leave lasting emotional scars.


• Social Psychology (14th edition) – Nyla Branscombe, Robert A. Baron Adapted by PreetiKapur for India.

• Development across the lifespan. (8th edition)- Robert S. Feldman. Adapted by Nandita Babu for India.

• Psychology – David. G. Myers

Riya Surekha Mishra is a contributing writer with Quillopia. The views expressed are the author’s own.