Positive Punishment: What Is It And How It Works?

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What is positive punishment? Positive punishment may seem like an oxymoron because it’s difficult to think of any form of punishment that can be positive. However, it is quite an effective measure as it has many positive impacts. Punishment in the right way and intensity can do more good than bad. Read on to learn more about it, its effects, and some examples.

What Is Positive Punishment?

Positive punishment is a disciplining method that focuses on reducing a certain undesired behavior in the child by applying a negative consequence to it. Sample this: Your six-year-old has constantly been messing up the house, so you refuse to buy him a pack of coloring books.

To make it simple, think of positive punishment this way — two negatives make a positive. When negative behavior is followed with a negative outcome, it yields a positive behavior.

How Does Positive Punishment Work?

The goal of any punishment is to stop the negative behavior. Positive punishment works on the principle of Operant Conditioning. The concept was first used by American psychologist BF Skinner in his theory ‘Skinnerian conditioning’ (1).

Operant Conditioning is a learning method in which the behavior is controlled by consequences such as reward or punishment. That is called ‘learning by consequence’. We observe the consequences of our actions, and this affects the way we act the next time when placed in a similar situation.

The key concepts of Operant Conditioning are reinforcement and punishment.

Reinforcement is to encourage good behavior while Punishment is to discourage the undesired behavior.

Reinforcement uses positive things to encourage positive behavior. A reward is used to derive the desired behavior. We’ll tell you more about Reinforcement later in the article.

Punishment means an undesirable consequence for undesirable behavior. Punishments can be positive and negative.

[ Read: How To Discipline A Child ]

Positive Punishment Vs. Negative Punishment

Positive punishment works by presenting an undesirable consequence after the negative behavior is exhibited. In other words, you are following up your child’s bad behavior with a negative consequence.

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Negative punishment is one where a desirable stimulus is removed after the unwanted behavior is exhibited. You are removing a positive thing from your child’s life as a punishment.

Here are subtle differences between positive and negative punishments:

Positive punishmentNegative punishment
Positive punishment is giving something negative to the child, such as spanking or scolding them.Negative punishment is taking away something nice from the child, such as cutting off their TV time or playtime.
Differentiation through examples:
The boy breaks the toy or dismantles the toy parts and the parent spanks him every time he does that.Two brothers have a fight over a toy as to who gets to play with it first; the mother takes the toy away.
The teenager’s phone rings during the class, and he is scolded for talking over the phone during the class.The teenager’s phone rings during a session. As a result, the phone is taken away from him.
The girl wears her favorite accessories to school; the principal reprimands her in front of everyone for not following the rules.The girl enjoys her music class, but she misbehaves during the class; the teacher dismisses her from the class for misbehaving.

Whatever might be the nature of punishment, the goal is to decrease the undesired behavior in the child.

[ Read: Authoritarian Parenting Style ]

Examples Of Positive Punishment

Here are some positive punishment examples:

1. My nine-year-old goes out to play without finishing his homework; I make him sit for an extra hour to complete his work before going to bed. Here, sitting for an extra hour is a positive punishment or aversive stimulus (something which he hates). So the next time around he will complete his homework before he goes out to play because he doesn’t want to sit for an extra hour studying.

2. You jump the traffic signal because you are getting late for work, then you are issued a ticket for breaking the traffic rules. You will be careful not to repeat it.

3. A kid skips doing her homework; the teacher makes her stand outside the classroom. This will ensure that she completes her homework the next time.

4. Two kids fight with each other in the class; the teacher sends them to the principal who suspends the two for a week.

5. My five-year-old steps on the dog’s tail and the dog bites him. The dog bite (punishment) will stop him from repeating the undesirable action in the future.

6. I am at the supermarket with my kid and he throws a tantrum; falls down on the floor and screams his gut out for a pack of chips. I obviously don’t like it, so I tell him, “If you do that we are going to leave the store right now.”

In all these examples, an unpleasant stimulus is applied to stop the unwanted behavior. Positive punishment can also occur as a result of natural consequence of a behavior. For example, when a child touches a hot object, his reflex is to immediately take his hands away from the object. That natural consequence will teach him not to touch or hold a hot object with bare hands.

If you are wondering in what way these punishments can bring about a change, read further.

[ Read: Creative Punishment Ideas For Kids ]

Is Positive Punishment Effective?

Punishment has to be used with the goal of eliminating an unwanted behavior over a period.

The key to achieving that goal is to be prompt and consistent. The punishment is effective if you apply the negative consequence immediately and consistently after the unwanted action.

Robert Larzelere, a researcher at Oklahoma State University, says (2), “Scientifically supported parenting interventions for young defiant children have found that timeouts and other types of assertive tactics can work if they’re administered correctly.”

Research done by his team has found that punishments, such as timeouts or taking away something, were effective when dealing with a defiant toddler, who is refusing to listen. In such cases, reasoning or explaining things to him would not work.

However, positive punishment may not be effective in all situations:

  • Larzelere’s team has also found that punishments were not effective with children who are willing to discuss and negotiate. Reasoning is the best tool to deal with them.
  • Experts believe that punishment need not necessarily stop the child from doing the undesirable act. The kid may still do it but will hide it from to you. In fact, this could be detrimental to them. For example, the father sees his teenaged daughter smoking a cigarette. He implements positive punishment and assumes that the girl has stopped smoking. But she would continue to smoke without the knowledge of her father.
  • While giving punishment to your child, you need to think if you are punishing the child for their undesirable behavior or just because you are angry at that moment. Ideally, you may wait for a few minutes, think about it and then implement the punishment.
  • Punishment, in itself, does not teach skills. Punishment will not be effective if the child does not know how to complete the skill or task asked, or is unable to successfully complete the skill or task. Punishment in these situations can lead to avoidance behaviours.

Therefore, positive punishment’s advantages have to be weighed against any possible negative effects.

Is Spanking An Effective Form Of Positive Punishment?

Spanking is undesirable both for the parent and the child. That is the last thing parents should do as a means of punishment. Any physical punishment can be more detrimental than beneficial to the child in the long run. In fact, it can aggravate the situation.

  • The Joint Statement on Physical Punishment of Children and Youth, Ottawa (3), says, “The evidence is clear and compelling — physical punishment of children and youth plays no useful role in their upbringing and poses only risks to their development. The conclusion is equally compelling — parents should be strongly encouraged to develop alternative and positive approaches to discipline.”
  • According to the American Psychological Association (APA), physical punishment can lead to negative effects in the long-term, such as aggression, behavioral problems, and mental ill health.

If you spank your child, remember that you also need to be sensitive enough to nurture them with love and care.

More On Reinforcement:

Just like Punishment, Reinforcement also is of two types – positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement: The positive behavior is rewarded through compliments, praise, good food, etc. When the child behaves well, he gets a star (reinforcement) to encourage him to behave well.
For example, I tell my kid, “If you wind up your toys after playing, I will give you a chocolate bar.” So, the winding up of toys after play (positive behavior) is reinforced by gifting the chocolate bar (reward).

[ Read: Positive Reinforcement For Child ]

Negative reinforcement: The positive behavior is rewarded by discontinuing an undesired consequence. For example, I nag (negative reinforcer) my son to take a bath before having his breakfast. To avoid my nagging, he finishes his bath (positive behavior) before breakfast.

Whether it is reinforcement or punishment, your reaction needs to be situational. Punishment per se doesn’t yield the desired behavior; it can only reduce the occurrence of the undesired behavior. You need to use it in combination with reasoning, love, and care. You need to make it clear to the child that you are punishing them because you love them, care for them and want them to do good in their life. Convince them about your intentions, and they might understand you.

What is your style of getting things done by your child? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Katherine Paxton

(Applied Psychology Program)
Katherine Paxton is an internationally-known award winning author of the book “Counselling people on the autism spectrum; A practical manual”. She graduated from a tri-university Applied Psychology Program of Campus Alberta (University of Alberta, Athabaska University, and University of Lethbridge). Katherine has supported people with diverse abilities for over a quarter of a century, including 15 years as a counselor... more

Kalpana M

Kalpana Nadimpalli graduated in English Literature and Psychology. Her fascination for the corporate world made her do a Masters in Business Administration. Being a mother of two boys, she could naturally fit into the shoes of a writer at MomJunction. She wrote articles on new parenting and relationships. Previously, Kalpana worked as a product information specialist and technical writer. During her... more