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Discipline, Punishment, and Rewards

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Parents have a responsibility not only to provide for their children but also to teach them the practical and psychological skills they will need to be well-functioning adults. To that end, parents set their expectations for and try to model appropriate behavior. They often reward obedience and respect, and they may use discipline to correct a child who acts in an inappropriate or unsafe way. Discipline, punishment, and reward are all part of the parental toolbox to be used when and how the situation warrants.

Maintaining Discipline

Parents are responsible for keeping their children safe and to guide them toward safe and appropriate behavior. Meeting those goals requires establishing a secure relationship and introducing age-appropriate discipline. Generally, when people think of discipline in families, their thoughts turn to punishment—time outs, grounding, denying certain privileges, etc. But discipline, research consistently shows, is often more effective when it’s positive and focused on teaching and obtaining rewards rather than avoiding punishment.

How important is it for parents to control their children?

Most relationships experience conflict at some point, but when a parent and child are locked in a power struggle, no one wins. Effective parenting is not about controlling a child, nor does it mean trying to change a child’s nature to fit with preconceived notions about what constitutes a “good kid." Instead, effective parents set expectations and standards for behavior and then take the time to help their children meet them. They also make an effort to listen and to understand on a fundamental level how their child’s needs differ from their own.

What happens when parents say “no” too often?

When a child's or teenager's behavior is dangerous to themselves or others, parents need to persuade them to change. However, the word “no,” when constantly repeated, can harm a young person's self-esteem. If children and adolescents constantly receive negative feedback without any positive reinforcement, they may start to internalize negative beliefs about themselves and feel that they can never do anything right; as a result, they may stop trying, or even adopt self-harming behaviors. Parents and caregivers need to recognize that their words hold greater weight with children and teens than they may realize—or than their kids let on.

Praise and Rewards

While it may seem counterintuitive, regularly rewarding a child for good behavior, whether that means with a material gift or verbal praise, tends to backfire. Praise and rewards can make a child feel like their parents’ love is conditional—they may become obsessed with achievement and avoid any activity where they have to work harder and run the risk of failure. As a result, they miss out on opportunities to grow and try new things.

Praise and rewards prove most helpful when they are doled out in small doses or for special emphasis. Parents will find positive encouragement and discipline to be more effective ways of getting their child to behave well. In response, children will develop a growth mindset and greater confidence in their own skills, which will only benefit them as they mature into adults.

How much should parents praise their children?

Positive encouragement motivates children and teens to repeat helpful behaviors better than criticism does and, as a result, should be used more frequently. But praise can be tricky. Every parent needs to know that while praise feels good in the moment, it can sabotage kids in the long run when it makes a judgment about a child’s overall abilities (e.g., “You’re a genius!”). Children may be so fearful of losing their parents’ approval that they stop trying new things and lose confidence in themselves. A better approach to praise is noting effort rather than focusing on achievements (“You’ve really been working hard at learning those numbers, and you can count higher today than you could last week!”); this also facilitates a growth mindset that benefits children as they grow older.

What is the argument for praising kids?

Praise is a common form of recognition and encouragement in many different kinds of relationships, not just that of parent and child. It’s natural to want others to have a good opinion of you, and praise fulfills that basic human need. Many experts believe that parents should praise their children to strengthen familial bonds, promote prosocial values, and provide the emotional support we all need.


Like other forms of corporal punishment, spanking is associated with a wide range of negative developmental outcomes for children. Spanking is generally defined as hitting a child with an open hand. Parents may resort to spanking when they feel overwhelmed and need a quick fix in the moment, but spanking does little to resolve problem behavior in the long term and only serves to widen the emotional rift between parent and child. In general, parents benefit from more positive discipline strategies that boost their child’s confidence and self-esteem rather than shaming and humiliating them with physical punishment.

Is spanking a reasonable punishment for a child who will not respond to other discipline?

In December 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that parents not spank their children. Similar to other forms of corporal punishment, the science of spanking shows that not only is spanking ineffective at changing children’s behavior, but it often backfires, increasing negative behaviors like physical aggression. Other methods are more effective at modifying a child’s behavior without causing long-term damage.

What effect does spanking have on children?

Spanking damages the relationship between parent and child. What really happens when parents spank kids is that they incorrectly model for the child that adults can use physical aggression to solve their problems. Children who are spanked may suffer long-term consequences, including mental health problems, lower self-esteem, cognitive dysfunction, antisocial behavior, and anxiety. They are also more likely to use spanking and other physical punishment to raise their own children, increasing the risk of abuse.

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