The Hard Stuff Series: Punishment 101s
The Hard Stuff Series: Punishment 101s

Key Points

  • Stay calm.
  • Don’t yell.
  • Change your tone.

To punish or not to punish, that is the question! Besides channelling my inner Hamlet, I wonder how many of us parents are met with this big question and more…

Tons of debates, challenges, theory-driven thoughts rise up as we think of the best ways to handle punishments for our kids. How do we teach our kids right from wrong? How do we know what advice is good versus just plain ol’ hubbub? Even that phrase “teaching our children right from wrong” makes me chuckle. It really tells us nothing.


Let’s start off with the basics.


What we want to teach our children is how to respond appropriately given the environment they are in and the audience they are trying to influence. Now, that’s a ton of behavior-speak but I’ll help you break it down. Basically, we want our children to know what is acceptable behavior regardless of the situation. And we do that through reinforcement and punishment. Read: it’s not only about the punishment!

But to really get into this topic, we need to understand what the words reinforcement and punishment mean. In clinical behavioral terms, reinforcement is the addition or withdrawal of a stimulus from an environment that will increase the probability that a behavior will occur again in the future. Punishment is the addition or withdrawal of a stimulus from an environment that will decrease the probability that a behavior will occur again in the future.

In other words, when we reinforce a behavior, we do something that will ENcourage our children to behave again in that way. When we punish a behavior, we do something that will DIScourage our children to behave that way.

At all times, we have to understand that there is an age-appropriate understanding of the environment by our children. There are two tried and true things to follow, though, no matter your child’s age:


  1. Stay Calm. Don’t yell. Everyone yells at their kids — usually at home. We don’t typically yell at our kids in public. We don’t want people to see us lose our cool. So why would we ever want our children to see us lose our cool? And yet, we yell at home. (Yes, me too! I may or may not have scared an unsuspecting squirrel that has been on my porch when I shouting for my kids to get ready in the morning for school. That was cathartic!) But even I have to remind myself that yelling does not show that you are in charge. In fact, it shows the opposite in that you are not in charge and don’t know what else to do. We want our children to control their emotions in every setting, so we shouldn’t lose our cool in front of them. A 2014 study in The Journal of Child Development demonstrated that yelling produces results similar to physical punishment in children: increased levels of anxiety, stress, and depression along with an increase in behavioral problems. So let’s get creative and promise me no more yelling. More in this in a minute!
  2. Communicate openly and clearly about consequences. First things first – talk to your kids about how you expect them to behave. This means ENcouraging your kids to behave appropriately prior to the situation and DIScouraging negative behavior prior to the situation. If your kids are having trouble listening, I recommend you hop on over to my post about 5 ways to get your kids to listen.

       At heart of it all, tell your kids what to do, not just what not to do.


Some Creative Suggestions For You At Every Age Group


A key thing to remember when providing punishments or reinforcements is that they must match the behaviors. Measure the “size” of the consequence.  Don’t go overboard either way for good or bad behavior. Here some examples and ideas:



Infants do not need punishments. But you will want to change/shape their behavior at times. During infancy, it is appropriate to change your tone of voice. This will signal to the baby that something in the environment has changed. This change, coupled with redirection to a new activity, will let your baby know what is appropriate behavior for them to engage in.

For example, if your baby is throwing a toy on the floor repeatedly from their high chair, change your tone and say “No, do not throw this on the floor.” Move the toy away and provide an alternative activity. The change in tone and activity will let your baby know that their behavior was not acceptable.



Toddlers are a different ball game. Using the above methods (no yelling, keep calm, tone) as well as timeouts prove to be the most effective. The purpose of the timeout is to stop the behavior that the child is doing and let them know that it is not okay. Timeout times are not for long though! The timeout should last only as long as the child is old (i.e. a 3-year-old should only be in time out for 3 minutes).



Preschoolers are similar to toddlers. Preschoolers do not understand things that are days away! So keep your timeouts and loss of privileges short-lived to be most effective, and make sure you present the consequence right away. If he throws the milk across the room repeatedly, follow the same steps: 1) no yelling, 2) calm, 3) change your tone, and 4) proceed with the appropriately timed timeout. has some great creative ideas, some that are more effective than timeouts.



Interesting things happen for school-aged children.

  • They are more capable of complex thought and delayed gratification.
  • As they mature, punishments can be longer.
  • Their consequences can change.

Instead of timeouts, try limiting access to their preferred activity (aka, the phone). Punishments, like taking away the phone, becomes relevant for our kids at this stage.



Let’s say your preteen does not complete her homework. Let’s use the likely culprit of poor time management as the reason. Now she can’t make it to her favorite afterschool activity until all her homework and additional schoolwork is complete. This is a great example of a natural consequence. Preteens are able to withstand natural consequences. In this case, it’s learning to manage her time more appropriately.

Makes sense? Our preteens’ actions will naturally include or exclude them. It is our job as parents to help them understand how the natural consequences relate to their behavior.

Teens also follow suit. You do not need to go overkill on the punishments. Choosing one consequence that will make an impact on their behavior will suffice. Limiting access to friends or social media or preferred activities are good options for teens!


In essence, when handling punishments, try to maintain a positive attitude toward your children at all times. Remember, they are watching us for our reactions to situations. We are the biggest influence over our children’s behaviors. So mind your manners and chances are your children will, too!




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