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Why Punishment Doesn't Teach Your Child Accountability

How to hold a child accountable for her behavior without punishment.

iStock/Used with Permission
Source: iStock/Used with Permission

"I recently read a quote from a Finnish education minister: "There's no word for accountability in Finnish... Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted." — Teacher Tom

What does it mean, to hold our child accountable for her behavior? My definition would be that our child assumes responsibility for her actions, including making amends and avoiding a repeat, whether the authority figure is present or not.

So, really, it isn't about "holding our child accountable." What we want is for our child to step into responsibility and hold herself accountable. Once someone takes responsibility, we don't have to "hold her accountable."

Essentially, we're talking about raising a moral child who wants to do the right thing. Most people assume that punishment is what helps humans decide to do the right thing, so if we aren't punishing our children, they'll grow up doing the wrong thing. That's a bleak view of human nature. And it turns out to be dead wrong.

There's now a wealth of research (see the end of this article for link to citations) demonstrating that kids who are punished are less likely to make positive moral choices. That's because:

  • Punishment focuses a child on the "consequences" he is suffering, rather than on the consequences of his behavior to someone else, so it makes him more self-centered and less empathic.
  • Punishment makes a child feel like he's a bad person, which is always a self-fulfilling prophecy, so he's more likely to repeat the bad behavior.
  • The most salient lesson of punishment is to avoid it in the future by sneaking and lying to escape detection, so punishment fosters dishonesty.
  • Because kids invariably consider punishment unfair, it teaches kids that might makes right and abuse of power is ok — which makes kids less likely to make moral choices.
  • Punishment — yes, even timeouts — erode our relationship with our child, so that he isn't as invested in pleasing us. And the more disconnected he feels from us, the worse his behavior.
  • Because punishment doesn't help a child with the emotions that drove her to act out to begin with, those emotions just get stuffed down, only to pop up again later and cause a repeat of the misbehavior.
  • Punishment makes a child feel wronged, and creates a "chip on the shoulder" so she's likely to resent making amends.
  • Punishment makes kids look out only for themselves and blame others, rather than caring about how their behavior affects others.
  • Punishment creates an external locus of control — the authority figure. The child actually comes to see the parent as responsible for making her behave, rather than taking responsibility for her behavior as her own choice.

One study showed that seventh graders whose parents raised them using punishment, including consequences and timeouts, were less morally developed than their peers. "Having learned to do exactly what they're told in order to avoid losing their parents' love, they tended to just apply rules in a rigid, one-size-fits-all fashion," says Alfie Kohn.

Many of the studies referred to above are detailed in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting, and more are being published every day. You'll also find a long list of citations (as well as tips to get kids cooperating without punishment) in my post How To Change Your Child's Behavior — Without Punishment.

Taken as a whole, this body of research suggests that children who are punished (including with timeouts and consequences) exhibit more bad behavior, not less. Not because kids who behave badly get punished more often, but because kids who are punished behave badly more often.

So if punishment teaches our child all the wrong lessons, what does raise a child who wants to do the right thing? Loving guidance. Which includes limits set with empathy. Connection. Modeling. And a whole lot of love.

More from Laura Markham Ph.D.
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