When a parent is telling their child off for doing something wrong, most people would say that they are “punishing” their child. Scolding, yelling, screaming and threats are usually perceived as being “punishing.” But what if a child continues to misbehave, even though their parent is doing all of these things? Would you say that the punishment is not working?

Well, before we answer that question we have to talk about the difference between punishment and reinforcement. The main difference between the two is this:

If you reinforce a behaviour, it will increase in the future

If you punish a behaviour it will decrease in the future

The key thing to remember is that what makes something “punishing” or “reinforcing” isn’t what it actually looks like – it is what impact it has on the behaviour.

So let’s revisit the example above about the parent telling their child off for misbehaving. If the child continues to misbehave, the parent’s attention (even though it is not positive attention) is actually “reinforcing” the child’s behaviour. However, if the child stopped misbehaving, the parent’s attention would be “punishing” the child’s behaviour.

Let’s have a look at a few more scenarios. A student is in class and it’s math time. The teacher has handed out the worksheets to the class and it’s time for everyone to complete the worksheet. The student begins to make funny jokes, noises and talks really loudly. He is distracting the class and is given a warning by the teacher. The student then starts to throw pieces of scrunched up paper. The teacher decides to send the student to the principal’s office. The same thing happens in subsequent math lessons. Again, a lot of people may think that being sent to the principal’s office is “punishment.” However, like in this instance, if the student’s behaviour continues to happen or even increase, it is actually “reinforcing” their behaviour.

And here is one more example. A mother is talking on the phone and her son begins tugging on her top. She looks at him, furrows her brow and says “shh.” Her son stops tugging on her top. The next time the mother is on the phone, her son doesn’t tug on her top. In this scenario, her son’s tugging behaviour decreased, so you can say that his behaviour was “punished.”

Before we wrap this post up, I also wanted to add that we can’t actually say that “punishment” isn’t working. If you are giving warnings, threats or sending a child to time out and their behaviour isn’t decreasing you can’t say that the “punishment” isn’t working. This is because by definition for something to be “punishing,” the behaviour of interest has to decrease.

At The Helipad we work with families to coach them through everyday instances or episodes of behaviour, find out why a child is engaging (or not engaging) in a behaviour and then provide suggestions regarding how to reduce or increase a behaviour. Parenting is the most important job in the world and we are here to help!

kids eating healthy food in kindergarten or at home

Why “Scolding” or “Telling A Child Off” Doesn’t Always = Punishment