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All parents have high hopes for their children. We want them to grow up to be good people. We want them to be polite, honest, hard-working, dependable, and caring, to name but a few of our hopes. On the other hand, we don't want our children to grow up to be lying, foul-mouthed, defiant, and selfish. As a result, we encourage some behaviors and discourage others. But what are the best ways to encourage and discourage behaviors. A group of psychologists called Behaviorists have extensively studied this question. One of them, E. L. Thorndike, summed up what parents need to do in a simple law, the Law of Effect.1 The Law of Effect says behaviors that are followed by pleasant consequences are more likely to occur in the future while behaviors that are followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to occur in the future.

So if we want our children to be polite, we should give them something pleasant after they act politely. If we want them to stop throwing tantrums, we should give them something unpleasant after they throw a tantrum. Pleasant consequences are called reinforcement. Some common reinforcements are praise, money, privileges, and a hug. Unpleasant consequences are called punishment. Some common punishments are scolding, time-out, loss of privileges, grounding, and spanking. Children need reinforcement and punishment if they are to learn what to do and what not to do. As children grow older, they begin to internalize our rules and so require less reinforcement and punishment. They learn to control their own behavior by following the rules we have taught them. However, even older children need to know there are consequences for obeying and disobeying our rules.

Some parents will agree with only part of what I have said. They agree that children should receive reinforcement for desirable behaviors, but they disagree that children need punishments for undesirable behaviors. They think that punishment is cruel or abusive. They prefer to ignore bad behavior in the belief that it will just go away. The daughter of one of my friends began to swear. Naturally, he was disappointed, but he decided to ignore it. He said she was just trying to shock people to get attention. By ignoring her, he would deny her the attention, and she would eventually stop swearing. Ignoring misbehavior may work in some cases. (It don't in my friend's case, by the way.) But there are many times when we simply can not ignore a behavior in hopes that it will go away.

We can not ignore dangerous behavior. For example, we can not ignore a child's running into the street in hopes it will stop. Nor can we ignore a child's behavior when he is hurting another child. Sometimes a child will not let us ignore his misbehavior. Sometimes, when we try to ignore a child's behavior, he turns up the volume until we can not help but act. If we try to ignore the whining of a child for a toy, he may begin to whine louder until we have a full-blown tantrum on our hands. Finally, a child may act in a certain way because he is being encouraged, reinforced, for it. We may not be reinforcing him, but some one else may. A child may be encouraged by his friends to be rude at school to his teachers. When the child comes home, he is rude to his parents too. If his parents decide to ignore his rudeness, it will not go away because he is getting reinforcement from his friends. Since a behavior that is reinforced will increase, he will only get ruder. Ignoring it won't make it go away. In the cases I have described above, we must use punishment to stop the misbehavior.

The Bottom Line: In many cases we must use punishment if we want to stop misbehavior.

 1 Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The Law of effect. American Journal of Psychology, 39, 212-222.

This material is copyrighted by Paul J Preston, 2004-2018. All rights reserved.