What Is 'Negative Punishment'? Definition and Real-World Examples

Oct. 26, 2017

Negative punishment is a popular concept in parenting. We'll explain what it is and how you can implement it with eight real examples.

What Is Negative Punishment? Definition and Real-World Examples
Image via Unsplash/daen_2chinda

Your child is acting out, and it seems like nothing you say or do will curb their exasperating behavior. Sound familiar?

No matter whether you're a parent, a babysitter, a nanny, or a day care worker, we’ve all been there -- scratching our heads, desperately racking our brains for the right solution to get our children to play nice. And with so many different parenting techniques out there, it's hard to figure out which one will work best for your child.

Negative punishment could be one way to address this issue. Although it sounds scary and ominous, negative punishment is simply a method by which you can reduce (or even eliminate) an undesirable behavior. How? You do this by (temporarily) taking away something that your child likes or enjoys.

This parenting technique, when used correctly, can be an effective tool that alters your child’s conduct for the better. This article will explain the concepts of "punishment" -- and of "negative punishment," specifically -- and will show you how you can incorporate it into your own parenting style.


What Is “Punishment”?

What Is "Punishment"? Definition and Examples
Image via Wikimedia Commons/Operant Conditioning Diagram

At a high level, "punishment" is a process of learning by which an undesirable behavior is followed by some kind of consequence that's intended to decrease the likelihood of that behavior happening again. The goal for this technique is to eventually eliminate the behavior completely.

Within the context of parenting, it's important to note that the term "punishment" doesn't imply that the consequence should be harmful. (In fact, most experts caution that punishments like spanking can cause more harm than good.)

The concept was first introduced by B.F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist who developed a theory of learning known as "operant conditioning." This theory claims that we learn "good" and "bad" behaviors by creating associations between a behavior and its consequences. By adding or subtracting desirable or undesirable consequences, you can then strengthen the behaviors you want (also known as "reinforcement"), and eliminate the behaviors you don't (a.k.a. "punishment").

If you want to eliminate a particular behavior, there are two different ways you can go about doing this. After your child acts out, you can either add an undesirable consequence (e.g., a chore), or you can take away a desired stimulus (e.g., dessert). These two tactics are referred to as "positive punishment" and "negative punishment," respectively.

For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on explaining what "negative punishment" is and how you can implement it. If you're interested in learning more about "positive punishment," make sure to read our article, "Positive Punishment: Adding Consequences to Change Your Child's Behavior."


What Is “Negative Punishment”?

What Is Negative Punishment? Definition
Image via Getty Images/JGI/Jamie Grill

Within the context of operant conditioning, the words "positive" and "negative" don't mean "good" or "bad." Rather, they refer to adding something or removing something, respectively, as a consequence of a particular behavior.

As such, "negative punishment" is similar to "positive punishment" in that the end goal is to decrease the likelihood of a particular behavior in the future. However, while "positive" punishment involves the addition of an undesirable consequence in response to an action -- think detention after school -- "negative" punishment involves the removal of something the child enjoys, such as a cherished toy or a scheduled playdate. Timeouts are a very common form of negative punishment -- they involve momentarily taking away a child's access to things that they enjoy.

The goal is to reinforce the idea that when undesirable behavior is exhibited, the result will be the loss of something desirable, thereby reducing the likelihood of that poor behavior in the future. So while that might be unpleasant for the child in the moment, it's not as "mean" or "harmful" a consequence as it sounds.


How Do I Use Negative Punishment in Real Life? 

How Do I Use Negative Punishment in Real Life?
Image via Getty Images/Comstock

Now that you’ve learned the history of Skinner’s theories, and more specifically about “negative punishment,” you’re likely ready to start trying out this technique with your own children. Here are eight examples of common behavioral scenarios in children and how you can use “negative punishment” to alter the child’s behavior and avoid future problems.

1) Refusing to Share With Others

Your children are playing together when, all of a sudden, your youngest daughter refuses to share a toy with her older sister. In an effort to ease the conflict and stop the fighting, you take the toy away. While you may need to repeat this technique several times for it to sink in, the child will soon learn that, when they don’t share the toy, it will be taken away.

2) Skipping Out on an Exam at School

You found out that your teenage son skipped out on a very important test at school, so you take away the keys to his car as a consequence of his poor decision. The idea is that your child realizes that there is a consequence associated with a poor action or decision. With diligence and proper implementation, you might find that using negative punishment to deal with your child’s behavior may solve the behavioral issues at hand.

3) Not Helping Around the House

We know that kids today are more connected to their phones and tablets than ever. So what better way to get them on board than to render those devices useless? In 2012, one mom gained internet fame when she reset and withheld her home WiFi password until her kids did their chores. This is a perfect example of negative punishment in today’s high-tech world.

4) Someone's Got a Potty Mouth

Ideally, our kids will keep it clean when it comes to the way they talk at home or with friends, but given all the exposure today’s children have to foul language, many parents may hear a surprising four-letter word or two over the course of a given day.

One way to help eliminate that? Implement a household swear jar and impose an incidental fine -- or withhold a small percentage of allowance -- each time one of those words is used. If parents really want this method to be effective, though, they, too, should also be expected to pay up when they set a poor example with a potty mouth of their own.

5) Avoiding Veggies at Mealtime

For many kids, there’s nothing more satisfying than a delicious dessert after dinner or while watching TV before bed. For parents, they typically expect their children to finish the nutritious part of a meal before moving on to sweets. One way of making sure that your kids join the Clean Plate Club is by denying them their favorite course: Dessert.

Of course, you don’t want your kids overeating in the pursuit of a nighttime snack, so be careful to serve appropriate portions and do your best recognize the difference between being difficult and simply being full.

6) Your Child Is Being Disrespectful

Your child wants a cookie before dinner. You say no. Your child argues and calls you a name. Put them in time out, about one minute per year of your child's age, explains Dr. Tom Phelan, a registered clinical psychologist and author of "1-2-3 Magic." If your child escalates the situation and hits you, it's another immediate timeout. Timeouts should only be in accordance with a child's age, lasting brief periods.

Your child should now ready to be more respectful to you in the future.

7) Your Child Has a Tantrum

Calmly tell him to stop. Wait about five seconds. Again, tell him to stop. If that doesn't work, wait another five seconds. If the tantrum continues, lead him to timeout. Don't try to lecture or talk with your child while they're in this state. Just act.

If the tantrum happens in a public place, such as a grocery store or restaurant, use the same method, says Dr. Phelan. But, give the timeout in an out-of-the-way place like a corner of the grocery store or the bathroom of the restaurant. Resume your activity when the child has their behavior back in check.

8) You Told Your Child to Clean Up After Herself and She Didn't

House guests are coming and your child didn't clean her room by 5 p.m. as you requested. Dr. Phelan recommends that you clean the room for your child, but make sure you tell them that you charge for cleaning. Charging them a fee that they must pay from their weekly allowance will help avoid this problem down the road. Next time, your child will remember to clean their room because they won't want to give up any more of their allowance money.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

Please enter a valid email address

Thanks for signing up!

We’ll see you back in your inbox.

Leave a comment

Create a free account with Care.com and join our community today.

You may also like

How much should you pay for a babysitter?