"Dr. Laura....How do you hold a child accountable for her behavior without punishment?"
"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."
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, to 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.
- 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
- 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
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
10 Ways To Guide Children Without Punishment.
Not surprisingly, these studies also show that children who are punished (including
with time outs and consequences) exhibit MORE bad behavior, not less. Not because
kids who behave badly are 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. We'll get into the details
in the next post, with: How to Raise a Moral, Responsible Child -- without Punishment.