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What About Punishment?

Your child needs you to be her parent, not her friend. Hopefully, you do not feel the need for your youngster to like you every minute; parents who have this need are destined to be ineffective, frustrated, and disappointed. Just by saying no, you will clarify who is in charge, set the boundaries, create the val­ues, and show the parental guidance children want and need. Children need to be loved and to love, and therefore it is necessary to focus on and punish only the specific activity, not blame or criticize the child herself, which may make her feel ashamed, inept, and undeserving of love.

Punishment can be an important element in any approach aimed at chang­ing a child's behavior. There are various types of punishment, and the one cho­sen must fit the need or the deed. While children have a need for parental control, that control should vary for different ages or stages of development. The form of discipline that you use with a six-year-old may not work or be ap­propriate when that child is ten.

Children may feel guilty about inappropriate behavior or failing to do the right thing, and a mild, appropriate punishment often relieves them of that guilt. Like everyone else, children have the right to make mistakes and learn from their experiences.

Here are some common forms of punishment: 

Natural Consequences

As a result of the child's own actions, certain consequences or reactions nat­urally happen, unless someone intervenes. For example, not taking care of a toy may result in that toy's becoming unusable. Teasing playmates may cause the child to lose her friends, get hit, or get teased herself.

Logical Consequences

In certain situations a natural consequence may be too dangerous. For in­stance, bike riding in the street may result in an accident or injury. So instead, the parent provides a punishment or consequence that appears logical and demonstrates a reasonable relationship between the behavior and the conse­quence. For example, if the child rides her bicycle in a busy street, that may result in losing the use of the bike for a week.

Behavior Penalty

A mild punishment may be given in response to behavior for which there is no ready natural or logical consequence. The penalty should be something mean­ingful to the child. For instance, when a youngster does not care for her pet, she may lose television privileges. These behavior penalties should be calmly discussed before they are instituted. Rules and expectations should be clear, preferably laid out in advance, and not presented as a surprise, a threat, or punishment.


This is an effective way of dealing with a child's impulsive, aggressive, or hos­tile behavior, which often includes hitting, having tantrums, throwing toys, name-calling, whining, interrupting, humiliating, or directly disobeying a re­quest to stop a particular action. It is not useful for a child whose only recog­nizable problem behavior is excessive sulking, crying, or whining. For these children, it is important to discover the root or purpose of these behaviors. Occasional excesses of this sort may be emotional expressions of frustration or disappointment which are normal and should be allowed. For a youngster with an attention deficit, lesser expectations and smaller consequences are needed.

A timeout removes the attention children are getting for their behavior and thus does not reinforce the behavior. It also allows parent and child alike to calm down, lessening the chances of angry encounters and power struggles. It permits parents to focus on the rational, specific behavior and allows interac­tions to return quickly to normal.

Here are some other points about timeouts to keep in mind:

  • Discuss the use of timeouts—and the specific problem behavior that prompts them—with the child. Changes in behavior may need to be mea­sured so both of you will know if timeouts are succeeding.
  • Employ timeouts immediately after the specific behavior occurs. Use the rule of "ten plus the child's age"—that is, send the child to a timeout within ten seconds of the bad behavior, with no more than ten words be­ing said (calmly). Timeouts should last about one minute per year of life, up to age eleven or twelve.
  • Send the child to a preselected place that is safe, boring, and away from the busy areas of the house. Do not use a location the child finds entertaining or frightening. Do not drag or pull the child there. For each minute of protesting going to timeout, you can add a consequence.
  • Use a portable timer that she can see or hear ring at the conclusion of the timeout. Let the youngster take responsibility for staying and leaving.
  • Talk to your child after the timeout, when you are both calm, and explain the particular behavior that prompted the timeout. If the youngster is still angry or pouting, give her more time to calm down. Do not act angry or apologize, and do not ask her to apologize.
  • Timeouts may require some practice before they become an effective means of modifying behavior.
  • Seek professional advice for the child who refuses timeouts, leaves the room before they are over, damages the room, or continues the same be­havior repeatedly despite the timeouts.

When Timeout Fails

When timeouts fail, consider the following:

  • Are you using timeout correctly and consistently?
  • Review the steps you took to begin the timeout. The two most common errors parents make in timeouts are (1) talking too much, and (2) getting upset and angry.
  • Are your expectations realistic for your child and for the specific situa­tion?
  • Are there changes you can make in the environment that would reduce conflict? For example, must your child do homework right before dinner, when she is hungry? Is your child tired or already irritable, and in need of some quiet time before she is ready to take on a task?
  • Would your spouse or another adult be more effective in doing timeout with your child or working through a disagreement with her in a particu­lar situation?
  • Are there new stresses or changes in your lives that are affecting you or your child?

Scolding and Disapproval

Use this approach sparingly, and only when the parents are in charge of their own emotions. When it is applied, it should be soon after the undesirable be­havior and focusing on the particular behavior.

Scolding should never be done in a nagging, humiliating, cynical, or sarcas­tic manner, which can result in a child feeling shame and resentment. The problem of the actual behavior may become "lost" in this turbulent emotional climate. Parental anger is normal but should not be excessive or out of pro­portion to what the child did to provoke it.

Physical Punishment

Parents often ask, "Should I spank my child?" Many parents occasionally lose their patience or, in anger or fear, may spank their youngster. For instance, if a child runs out into the street, a parent may sweep the child up and, in a mo­ment of anxiety for the child's well-being, spank her to emphasize the parent's sense of urgency or worry. Actually, it is the parent's expression of disapproval that is an effective deterrent in this situation, not the spanking.

Spanking may relieve a parent's frustration for the moment and extinguish the undesirable behavior for a brief time. But it is the least effective way to dis­cipline. It is harmful emotionally to both parent and child. Not only can it re­sult in physical harm, but it teaches children that violence is an acceptable way to discipline or express anger. While stopping the behavior temporarily, it does not teach alternative behavior. It also interferes with the development of trust, a sense of security, and effective communication. (Spanking often be­comes the method of communication.) It also may cause emotional pain and resentment.

Last Updated
Caring for Your School-Age Child: Ages 5 to 12 (Copyright © 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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