Psychologically aggressive strategies can be emotionally damaging to a child in development.

What Happens When Children Are Never Punished for Bad Behavior?

by Damon Verial

To many mothers, the word “punish” is as beautiful as the sound of nails scratching a chalk board. That’s because mothers know the emotions that come along with punishment -- bad feelings in both the mom and the child. For this reason, it’s tempting to throw the technique of punishment out the window. Don’t be too hasty about banning a useful parenting technique; you’d be throwing the baby out with the bath water, which, by the way, is not a humane form of punishment.

Defining Punishment

Before parents decide not to punish their children, they have to first decide on what punishment is, exactly. In psychology, punishment is not a bad word -- it is neutral; punishment’s definition is a consequence of an action that reduces the probability of the associated action occurring again. In other words, a punishment can be anything that discourages a child from repeating an undesirable action. If you are like most mothers, uncomfortable with the word “punishment,” you can call it something like “discipline” or “reinforcement;” just know that punishment does not include physical or verbal aggression in its definition.

Good Punishments for Bad Behavior

Punishment only works if it is good punishment, or “discipline,” if you prefer. Bad punishment can actually be psychologically damaging to the child, and nobody wants that. So before you decide to discipline, know what good discipline is and what good discipline is not. Good discipline is not psychologically damaging; insulting and stonewalling should be out of the question. Good discipline is also not physically damaging, even temporarily, which includes smacking and spanking. So what does that leave you with? Good discipline can be anything that interrupts the child’s bad behavior and is not damaging. You can be creative or stick with the discipline techniques that have stood the test of time. Giving time outs, distracting the child or telling the child he made you sad are all forms of good discipline.

Repetition of Bad Behavior

If you do not punish bad behavior, you will inadvertently discover why punishment was invented -- punishment stops bad behavior while lack of punishment does not. How’s that for a surprise? But seriously, punishment works because it targets basic instincts. When a negative consequence follows a behavior enough times, people begin to link the two in a causal relationship. If you don’t give your child a consequence for her bad behavior, she has no reason to stop.

Mixed Messages

If you refuse to punish a child for a given behavior while everyone else punishes that behavior, you may be inadvertently confusing your child on right and wrong. While it may feel good to be “the good parent,” having your husband do all the punishing, avoid this at all costs. If you never punish your child for an action Daddy or the preschool teacher punishes, you are basically telling him, “Sometimes this behavior is good, and sometimes it is not.” The uniformity of punishing bad behavior at each instance drives home to the child that the behavior is never acceptable. So be sure to cooperate with your hubby in deciding what actions are punish-worthy and which are not.


  • Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child; John Gottman
  • 21st Century Psychology; Stephen Davis and William Buckist

About the Author

Having obtained a Master of Science in psychology in East Asia, Damon Verial has been applying his knowledge to related topics since 2010. Having written professionally since 2001, he has been featured in financial publications such as SafeHaven and the McMillian Portfolio. He also runs a financial newsletter at Stock Barometer.

Photo Credits

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