Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Children Learn When to Punish Others

There are many strategies for punishing others, as children will learn.

Key points

  • There are two distinct strategies for punishment: Punishing members of your group, or punishing members of other groups.
  • Children use both strategies.
  • Children's tendency to use these strategies is influenced by their parents' beliefs.
PeopleImages/iStock image licensed to Art Markman
Source: PeopleImages/iStock image licensed to Art Markman

A remarkable thing about humans compared to most other animals is that we have to learn a lot about how to navigate the world from others rather than having behavior programmed in through evolution. Learning how to punish others is a great case in point.

In a social species, it is important to learn to follow the rules of a group. So, you might expect there to be pressure to enforce the rules inside of a group by punishing people who transgress those rules. On the other hand, social environments are also based on subgroups that are distinct from others. So, perhaps people ought to be more prone to punish people who come from a different group rather than members of their own.

Obviously, people are capable of both. There are times when we give out punishments to people inside of our own group in order to enforce rules. But there are also times when we are more focused on punishing people from other groups who have done something wrong.

An interesting paper in the November 2022 issue of Psychological Science by Rachel Leshin, Daniel Yudkin, Jay Van Bavel, Lily Kunkel, and Marjorie Rhodes explored how the beliefs of parents may influence how children choose whether to punish someone else.

In one study in this paper, children between 5 and 8 years old were recruited from across the country for an online study. A parent also provided some information. Children were asked two questions about things they like and then were told that they were assigned to a group based on their answers (even though they were actually randomly assigned to a group).

After this first part of the study, participants were allowed to watch an amusing animal video as a reward. They were told these videos were saved in a bank from which they could watch them again later.

Next, participants saw a video of another child who was asked to hold a picture that a third child had drawn. They watched this child tear the picture into small pieces and throw it away. They were either told that the child who did the bad thing was from their own group or from another group.

Participants were told that this child also had some videos they could watch in a bank. They were given an option to punish the child by putting a restriction on the bank such that that child would have to wait one minute before a video would start. Participants were given an example of a 10-second delay to experience the frustration of having to wait. If participants chose to give this punishment, they would also have to wait a minute before watching each additional video, so the punishment had a cost to the participant giving the punishment.

Consistent with previous research, participants chose to punish the bad child about half the time. What factor determined the type of bad person the participants wanted to punish?

Parents were asked a number of questions about themselves including their political leanings (liberal/conservative), their religiosity, and their parenting style. Other research suggests that people with a liberal political orientation tend to want to keep members inside a group following rules, while people with a conservative political orientation see punishment as a way of getting retribution or payment from people who have done wrong, and so they are more prone to punish people from other groups.

Interestingly, the political orientation of the parents was associated with the type of punishments participants gave. Participants were no more likely to choose to punish the bad child if their parents expressed a liberal versus a conservative orientation. But, participants with liberal parents were more likely to punish a child from their own group, while participants with conservative parents were more likely to punish a child who was from another group. Other beliefs of the parents that are often correlated with political orientation (like religiosity and parenting style) did not predict this punishment pattern significantly. Another study in this paper had similar findings.

What is going on here?

Parents are an influential source of values and behavior for their children. Children learn a lot about how to act from their interactions with their parents as well as their observations of how their parents engage with other people. These findings suggest that children are internalizing norms about how to act that they are able to use broadly in their lives. Parents are not the only source of these norms, of course, but for the 5-to-8-year-olds in these studies, they are quite important.


Leshin, R. A., Yudkin, D. A., Van Bavel, J. J., Kunkel, L., & Rhodes, M. (2022). Parents’ Political Ideology Predicts How Their Children Punish. Psychological Science, 33(11), 1894–1908.

More from Art Markman Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today