Finding Balance Between Punishment and Reinforcement

A few weeks ago one of my friends bought a new puppy. She was telling me that the puppy continued to go after one specific piece of wood furniture even after several reprimands. I smirked as my friend was telling me this because I knew exactly what was going on. Behavior is relatively similar for animals as well as for humans. Either the puppy’s desire to eat the wood furniture was stronger than the reprimand or the puppy enjoyed any kind of attention, even negative. 

Here’s the thing, punishment isn’t inherently bad. Punishment has immediate effects and can be useful. However, it has severe negative effects and needs to be used with an alternative behavior to replace it. For instance, the reprimand my friend’s puppy was continuing to receive wasn’t enough to stop the behavior. What the puppy needed was for them to show her what was acceptable behavior. 

Many of us can remember a time where we were in trouble and consequently received a reprimand, time out, or sent to our rooms. Research shows that with long periods of punishment and without properly including an alternative behavior some of these will occur: 

  • Higher rates of aggression from the one being punished
  • Avoidance of the person implementing the punishment
  • Guilt/shame

Reinforcement, even though it is used more frequently in behavior analysis because of the side effects being less intense, has side effects as well. 

  • Decrease in desired behavior in other settings (doing homework at home but failing to do work at school)
  • Nagging to gain reinforcement
  • Becoming dependent on the reinforcer to engage in the behavior (only does chores when receiving the reinforcer)

Creating a positive and safe environment in your home is all about finding balance between punishment and reinforcement. 

The biggest things to remember are: 

  1. Why is the behavior happening? (Escape, Attention, for a Tangible item, self-stimulatory/automatic behavior)
  2. What method will produce the best results? If the behavior is dangerous than a quicker method such as punishment could produce fast results, however it could also be damaging if it increases the dangerous behavior (such as aggression becoming heightened) 
  3. What is the alternative/expected behavior? Have you identified the behavior you would like to see? Have you verbally expressed this with your child? 
  4. Have you modeled or role played the alternative/expected behavior? Everyone learns in different ways. While some of us are auditory and can understand with just a verbal instruction, others need to see it visually or kinesthetically. 

The above tips will help as a reminder when behaviors are increasing and you’re feeling overwhelmed. Hopefully this creates a balance in your parenting as well as providing harmony in your house.