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Can You Discipline Your Child Without Using Punishment?

This is the third in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series we will  explore the reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.

By Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, ABPP (Yale University)

When we talk about discipline, we usually refer to the efforts by parents and teachers to reduce or eliminate annoying or inappropriate child behaviors. Punishment is designed to suppress or reduce behavior and may appear like the perfect match for these goals.  The term “discipline” includes the notions of instruction but also of punishment.

From the standpoint of psychological science, there is another way to consider the topic of discipline that sidesteps a sole focus on punishment. This approach begins with what we are trying to accomplish – eliminating inappropriate child behaviors and teaching habits and values.  This perspective keeps the same goals, but very much opens up the possible means of achieving these goals without the use of punishment.

Punishment in Brief

As a general rule, punishment is not a very effective way of changing behavior, at least in the usual way it is administered. By punishment, I refer to negative consequences after certain behavior (e.g., gentle reprimand, lecture, shouting, or hitting) or removing some positive consequence (e.g., placing the child in time out or away from desirable events, taking away a privilege).

As an aside, gentle, rational, and measured reasoning with a child (e.g., “We do not do that [behavior] in this house,” “What if your sister ruined your toys?” or “You, just violated a Kantian imperative”) are wonderful to teach reasoning and to model parent reasonableness under fire but not very effective as behavior-change techniques.

There are three major concerns relevant to the use of punishment.

1. Punishment even at its best, does not develop the positive behavior the parents wish.

That is, it does not teach the child what to do, but may momentarily suppress the undesired behavior.  You can reprimand the child all day for not (choose one: doing homework, practicing a musical instrument, cleaning up her room) but that will not teach her to do homework, to practice, or to clean up.  Developing behavior does not come from merely suppressing unwanted behaviors.

2. Punishment often has negative side effects

These effects include trying to escape from or avoid the situation or person associated with punishment, emotional effects (e.g., crying, being upset), and engaging in aggressive behavior. None of the side effects relates to the effectiveness of punishment (e.g., the more upset the child is not any indication of the effectiveness of punishment in suppressing behavior).  Actually, side effects “come on” or occur even with very ineffective punishment.

3. The punishment trap can lock in punishment in parent and teacher behavior.

That trap refers to the fact that punishment often stops the behavior immediately — perhaps through startle or interruption. These immediate effects (stopping of the aversive child behavior) help lock in the parent’s behavior (through negative reinforcement). By “locking in” I mean it increases the likelihood that the parent will punish in the future. In fact, the rate of the child’s misbehavior is not changed or improved, but those delayed effects do not override the impact of immediate cessation of behavior.

To be clear, punishing your child’s behavior can have multiple goals. For example, parents often want to teach a lesson, provide a just penalty to match the child’s crime, to be a responsible or “good parent”, or to follow cultural or religious practices.  These goals can be distinguished from changing child behavior.

The goals do not necessarily clash, i.e., eliminating some behavior, but the means really do.  For example, when your child carelessly destroys the family dollhouse that was built by his or her great-great-great (keep adding “greats”) grandfather from Pangaea, the supercontinent, you may want to convey the gravity of the act and punish accordingly.  At this point, a psychologist armed with “evidence-based” punishment might well say, “the science supports use of just a couple minutes of time out or brief loss of a privilege (e.g., computer, videos, bicycle) for a day.” The psychologist is speaking to behavior change but not the many goals that you, as a parent, hope to achieve.

So, How to Eliminate Behavior without Punishment

There is no evidence that punishment is really needed to achieve parent goals or to discipline children. That is a stark statement and saying that it has a strong research base is no consolation.

Here is what we know. There are ways of eliminating behavior that involve directly developing and reinforcing behaviors that are opposite to or incompatible with the behavior one wants to eliminate.  The non-technical term is reinforcing positive opposites.  This is based on many technical procedures (several differential reinforcement schedules) that have been well studied in human and nonhuman animal research (see references).  Essentially, the key point is developing the behavior one wishes rather than focusing on what to eliminate.

Consider the table below in which the goals are to change behaviors (left column). A parent or teacher might endlessly make threats, reprimand, lecture, and take privileges away for any one of those.  Yet, these interventions are extremely unlikely to work at all.  A more effective strategy is to develop the behaviors one wants, i.e., developing the positive opposite (right column).

I say “reinforcing” the opposite behavior, but this is not merely administering praise or throwing rewards at the behavior. Changing behavior focuses on antecedents (what comes before the behavior), the behavior (crafting approximations of what you wish), and consequences (usually praise delivered in a special way).  This requires some knowledge about how to craft and develop the behavior, but concrete guidelines are readily available (see the references).

The examples in the table are behaviors in everyday life but at the clinic where I work, we use positive opposites with children referred for aggressive and violent behaviors.

What you want to get rid of . . .Positive opposite… Siblings fighting over a TV show (or use of a computer game)Sitting and watching TV together nicely (or taking turns with game), without shouting or hittingChild throwing his clothes all over the floor in his bedroomPlacing them in his dresser or closetChild not doing her homeworkSitting quietly at her desk and doing school work for 30 minutesChild getting out of bed again and again for a drink of water to stretch out bed timeGoing to bed, getting up no more than once for a drink or bathroom, and remaining in her roomChild arguing and shouting at me whenever I say no to somethingExpressing anger calmly

Where Does Punishment Fit in All of This?

The first point to make is that punishment is invariably the secondary part of any behavior-change effort when trying to “discipline.” That means we begin by identifying the behavior we wish to take the place of the one we want to eliminate.  We now focus on developing that behavior through the use of antecedents and consequences and shaping.  Once that primary focus is in place, mild punishment can be an effective adjunct.

Here are key tips for using punishment effectively:

1. Emphasize praise and attention for the positive opposite behaviors.

If you are using brief time out from reinforcement as the punishment, do not expect it to work at all unless you are praising the appropriate behavior you wish during periods when your child is not in time out.

2. If punishment is to be used, make it mild and brief.

Time out of a few minutes (e.g., 5 minutes or thereabouts) or loss of privilege (e.g., for an evening or day or two) is as effective as what you might want to do (e.g., 1 hour of time out; taking away the privilege of going out on dates until your child is 30 years old).

3. Explain to your child why he or she should or should not do something.

It is fine and indeed beneficial to do so. This models thinking, reasoning, and the appropriate style of handling a potentially volatile situation.  Yet, it is not likely to impact the frequency of the inappropriate behavior.  The familiar parental refrain, “If I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times” makes perfect sense.  That phrase is in keeping with what we know, namely, telling people to do something (e.g., stop smoking, eat more vegetables, ease up on the fast foods, add broccoli to your diet) does not mean they will do it.  Providing information can help but, done in isolation, it is not a very reliable way to change behavior in most people most of the time.

4. Avoid physical punishment.

It is not more effective and, in fact, moderate to severe application increases the risk for all sorts of undesirable outcomes (e.g., aggressive and antisocial behavior, poor school performance, problems of physical health, damage to the immune system). The uses of physical punishment are influenced by scores of other factors, of course. And often the findings are not relevant to families or compete with what they have experienced (e.g., punishment trap is relevant here).

5. Model the behavior you wish to see in your child.

Modeling is an untapped influence in the home, i.e., showing exactly the behaviors you wish your child to learn. Children copy parents of course, but modeling is not used strategically by parents to teach the behaviors they wish in a systematic way.

6. Avoid cliché interventions.

Our media has popularized techniques like “tough love,” “three strikes (misbehaviors) and you are out,” or reasoning that is not really well based in childrearing research (e.g., slippery slope—if I let this go, my child will keep getting worse). These are not interventions that are effective as a general rule, and they actually can make achieving the desired behaviors much more difficult..

In summary, what do we know about changing the behavior of children (and others) in the context of discipline?

The decision regarding how to discipline children is influenced by many factors and is a privilege and responsibility that comes with parenting. From the standpoint of psychological science, however, the question is, “What are the most effective ways of changing behavior based on research?” Developing positive, prosocial behavior not only develops habits you wish to see, but can eliminate behaviors that interfere with your child’s adjustment and functioning.

If the usual methods are working for your child, i.e., he or she is doing well at home and at school, everyone is satisfied, and there are no risks of untoward side effects for the child, then perhaps you do  not need to resort to methods I have highlighted. On the other hand, these methods can help ease parenting discipline challenges by achieving changes in your child’s behavior more effectively, more quickly, and more enduringly.

Research tells us that good habits, whether it is eating broccoli or flossing or developing positive opposites in relation to discipline, are not compatible with what many people wish to do or believe are advisable practices. For many parents, discipline means punishment and lessons need to be taught. That is understandable.  However, the suggestions I offer are effective in changing behavior and perhaps can be adapted to your personal and cultural views of child-rearing.


Kazdin, A.E. (2013). Behavior modification in applied settings (7th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Kazdin, A.E., & Rotella, C. (2013). The everyday parenting toolkit: The Kazdin Method for easy, step-by-step lasting change for you and your child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, ABPP, is Sterling Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University and Director of the Yale Parenting Center. He was the 2008 President of the American Psychological Association and is the author of 49 books for professional-audiences on topics of parenting and child rearing, child psychotherapy, cognitive and behavioral treatments, interpersonal violence, and research methods.  His work has been translated in several languages throughout the world.

Image source: Flickr user Dolan Holbrook via Creative Commons

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