Myth Busting 12: Punishment Works

When I was a punitive parent, I didn’t understand what people meant when they said that spanking doesn’t work. I’d think, ‘Well, it works for me…’ As I came out of the punitive paradigm I started to be able to look back and see how what I had been doing wasn’t working but I couldn’t think of a way to articulate it to my former self (or someone who thinks like I did). I think I may now have it:

What is spanking/time out/punishment meant to teach? Obedience. And for a child of the right temperament, they will pick up on the idea that if they do what they are told, they won’t get hurt, and they will choose to comply to avoid the pain. There are any number of problems that gentle parents will point to with this, but for my purpose here, the simplest is that it requires trial and error on the part of the child. They have to fail to obey a number of times in order to figure out the pattern. And if the parent makes a mistake, as we all do, such as assuming the child knows what obedience looks like in a given situation when in fact they have misunderstood something, then that will delay the learning-by-trial-and-error, because the child will have incomplete or inaccurate data from which to draw their conclusions.
Trial and error is a valid way to learn many things. Experimentation, exploration and discovery – these are the essence of what it means to be a toddler and they remain a delight to our minds throughout our lives. But they are not always the best way to learn. And when it comes to something as foundational as our relationship with our parents, and how to avoid being deliberately hurt by the people God gave us to protect us – then trial and error is not the best method. Not at all.
When you think about it, what really works, when it comes to learning anything, is… success. In fact, ‘trial and error’ is the wrong term, really. It should be ‘trial, error and success’. If all we do is fail, we don’t learn what it looks like to succeed. ‘Trial and error’ teaches, at best, what not to do.
So… if I want my child to learn obedience, the best way to teach him, is to help him obey. Ideally – I’m not perfectly consistent (far from it, if I’m honest) – but ideally, my children don’t get the choice to ‘obey or be punished’, they get the choice to ‘obey on their own or obey with help’. Either way, they experience success in obeying. They learn that what I say happens, and that it is my job to make sure it happens and it is their job to obey. When I compare this with the cycle of “instruct-fail-spank-fail-spank-maybe succeed” that I was in with my son before God showed me positive parenting, I can see that it really wasn’t working. Because now I know what ‘working’ looks like. Now I know what proactive teaching looks like.

‘Help’ comes in different forms. It changes depending on the age and stage of the child, and the circumstances. It can be playful parenting, to make it fun to obey. It can be gently taking the child’s hand and physically helping them. It can be getting up close to the child and repeating the instruction at eye level to make sure they understand. The options are almost endless, and depend greatly on the child’s personality, time available etc. The Gentle Discipline FAQs Forum ( at Gentle Christian Mothers was a really helpful place for me to find ideas and ‘see’ what it looks like when Gentle Discipline works.

Did you have an ‘aha’ moment when you saw how your discipline paradigm had shifted? How do you explain the difference?

About Claire

I'm part-time stay-at-home mum to 3 children under 10. We're trying to raise them with the gentleness and creativity God uses with us. I'm also a part-time nurse and a volunteer breastfeeding advocate. We live not far from the beach or the bush in NW Tasmania.
This entry was posted in Figuring it out, Grace-Based Discipline, Refuting Dobson's questionable logic., Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Myth Busting 12: Punishment Works

  1. Pingback: Punishment Works? | Why Not Train A Child?

  2. Lana says:

    Love this. For me, everything changed over the foster kids.

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