Should you punish your children?

Should you punish your child
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Rob Charteris RMN, BSc Hons, CBT Practitioner

Loving respectful children

“If you want a loving, respectful, self-disciplined child you won’t use punishment. You will use appropriate parenting tools. For young children you will use diversion, structure, limits and withdrawal of attention. For older children, you will set expectations and spell out the rewards or consequences.”

This is a quote from Norine G. Johnson, Ph.D. the former president of the American Psychological Association.

We have dealt with older children and the use of consequences in another article which we would suggest you read for children of 4 upwards. However little children are not able to deal with concepts such as this, so here we will explore diversion, structure and limits.

The problem

You might think everything your child does is magical. How could anyone not adore him as he playfully capers around and enjoys himself? To you the constant chatter and tantrums might be beautiful – and they should be. But to others, having to talk over shouting and crying, or deal with ice cream being rubbed in their clothes, might not be seen in quite the same way!

Let’s analyze some strategies that might help make family time more manageable and give our families and ourselves the best experiences of our children that we can.


Punishment is something we do do children and it is always negative. Hitting and shouting at children normally leads to more fuss and an escalation of the problem. They can also grow up argumentative or aggressive or with psychological issues. Shouting and hitting teaches them that this is the right way to deal with problems. Remember that our children tend to learn most of their social skills directly from us.

So let’s take some time to look at Doctor Johnson’s advice and find other ways to deal with naughty toddlers.


Diversion is the skill of changing your child’s attention. If your child has noticed something they want like a toy and start to make trouble in order to get it, you can use diversion to take their attention somewhere else. You give them an alternative. A toddler’s attention is a pretty fleeting thing and they will quickly change what they want if you can provide something else. A favorite toy from home is always a good thing to have in your bag. If your toddler notices something in a shop and starts to have a tantrum because they can’t have it, you can normally switch their wants to their favorite toy. Don’t give them the toy before you go out, keep it hidden. If your child sees something they want while out, you can say something like –

Oh look bear is here, hiding in my bag all along. He’s lonely, listen he’s talking to me”.

Often this will divert them from the other object, and you can carry on shopping in relative peace.

Structure and limits

These strategies are related and should be used together. Structure is where you create routines that children know and get used to. If they know you always go for an ice cream after shopping,  they get used to this. They know that if they behave around the boring shop it will soon be time for fun and an ice cream in the park.

Limits are the boundaries you build around their world. Your child need to learn that “no means no”, and if they hear this they know no amount of crying or shouting is going to work In their mind they think “mommy never gives me what I want when I cry and scream, so I won’t bother”. Reinforce limits with structure so that the outcomes are always the same.

Structure and limits are not cruel, in fact they make children feel secure and loved.

Withdrawal of attention

One of the reasons punishment doesn’t work is because it is a form of attention. A bored child will actually prefer being shouted at to no attention at all! Bear this in mind when going about your business and give your child lots of positive attention such as praise and hugs. When they are naughty the removal of this positive attention will be far more effective than shouting at them.

Remember the one thing a child loves more than anything – is you and your attention!



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