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How to effectively "punish" your kids

It’s time we have to talk about punishment. One of the most common questions I get from parents in counseling and in comments on my videos is “How do I punish my kids effectively…”

Usually this question comes from parents who feel that without effective methods of discipline, their kids will never learn how to respect rules, others, and specifically them. And they’re right. Without effective methods of discipline, kids will struggle to demonstrate respect. But is punishment an effective method of discipline? How do we do it?

Well to answer that we first have to define punishment. At the risk of being cliché... according to the Oxford Dictionary punishment is formally used to describe “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.” The key word here, bolded for effect, is retribution. And that leads us to our first key takeaway:

Punishment, by definition is retributive.

Why is this important? Because retributive actions rarely communicate what we want them to. In fact, more often than not, retributive action isn’t about the offender at all; they are about the victim. In other words, punishment, retribution, at its very core at least as much about making the victim feel vindicated as they are about making the perpetrator feel remorse. Unfortunately, based on numerous studies, it is the exceedingly rare occurrence that retribution leads to genuine remorse for the perpetrator or solace for the victim.

This is because the brain does not easily make meaning out of or even fully retain the memories concerning actions deemed to be intentionally harmful. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been an environment with kids who were punished and overheard them recount the experience without any clue of why they were punished. Usually the conversation goes something like this:

“My mama popped me today, hard!”


“I was bad.”

“What did you do?”

“I don’t know.”

To be clear, prior to the physical punishment (hitting or euphemistically “popping”), it’s highly likely that the child could have been taught the reason that her actions were problematic and how to avoid such actions in the future. The moment that the punishment was employed, however, the entire experience was consumed instead by the traumatic memory of intentional harm from her caregiver. And make no mistake, though physical violence is one of the most easily identifiable forms of punishment, isolation (eg. time outs), emotional trauma (eg. yelling), or relational/psychological trauma (eg. shaming) are all variations of the same implicit retributive goal.

On the other hand, redemptive actions that assist in focus on fostering empathy and perspective taking in perpetrators are wildly more effective at reconciliation than retributive ones. But are those punishment? Well by definition, no… they cannot be because they are not retributive.

So, with this in mind, our second main take away, how do we punish effectively?

We can’t "punish effectively."

I’m going to make a bold statement here and say that the most effective parenting NEVER employs punishment. Instead, they deploy restorative (not retributive) discipline.

Let me pause here and say that many of my readers were raised in households where the words discipline and punishment were used synonymously. They are not interchangeable. Even though this misuse of the word goes back hundreds of years, it is no less a false equivalence. Discipline comes from the latin root discipulus from which we get the English word “disciple” or “student.” To discipline your child is simply to teach them; whereas punishment has little to do with education and far more to do with retribution.

At this point you’re probably annoyed that I am so insistent on the semantics… after all you didn’t sign up for an article about English; you’re reading to learn how to parent better.

The thing is, the way we talk about things shapes the way that we think about them and until we as parents understand the difference between restoration and retribution, we will always be playing catchup. So here is your third take away:

Retribution in parenting seeks to look backward at how we can make ourselves feel better, restoration looks forward at how we can prevent future harm.

So how do we effectively teach respect through restorative discipline rather than retributive punishment?

Well that’s a whole separate blog but I can summarize some key points.

First, it starts by naming that many of us were parented from a retributive mindset (in some cases maliciously but usually simply because our parents didn’t have the tools we have today) and pledging to do better. I like to tell people that parenting at its best is journey of personal discovery and healing… at its worst, it’s the unconscious perpetuation of generational trauma. Choose to do better, not because you don’t love your parents (or they don’t love you) but because you DO love your kids and want what’s best for them.

Second, each and every time our child does something that we would normally have punished them for, we have to stop, take a breath, and ask ourselves: “Is my goal here to get revenge on my kid (on my behalf or someone else’s) or is my goal to teach them why what they did is a problem so they won’t do it again?” Reading this calm as a cucumber the answer is easy but in the moment after your child just popped you in the mouth with the iPhone you just told them to put down, you might be surprised at how attractive retribution sounds.

Third, we need to develop real, practical REDEMPTIVE teaching strategies to get them on the right track. For that, stay on my page or reach out. This is MOST of what I talk about.

So are you ready to do drop punishment for good? Let me know in the comments.

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