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

Oct. 26, 2017

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

Parenting isn't always a walk in the park, and determining the best way to address your child's inevitable poor behavior can be a tricky line to walk. Techniques like positive punishment and negative reinforcement (two parenting "buzzwords" that you've probably heard a lot already) are just two of the ways parents and child care providers can try to correct a child's behavioral issues.

[RELATED: "Parenting Styles: 4 Negative Reinforcement Examples "]

If you decide to try out either -- or both -- of these parenting techniques, it's important that you first understand what they mean, what they do, and how you can incorporate this technique into your parenting style -- and how your babysitter or nanny can incorporate it into their care repertoire.

For now, we'll focus on the concept of "positive punishment."

What Is "Punishment"?

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.

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

There are two ways to go about eliminating certain behaviors that your child does. One way to do this is by adding an undesirable or aversive stimulus (e.g., a chore) after they perform the behavior (e.g., hitting their brother). Another way to do this is by removing something they like or enjoy (e.g., after-dinner TV time) after they misbehave (e.g., lie about something they did). 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 "positive punishment" is and how you can implement it. If you're interested in learning more about "positive punishment," make sure to read our article, "What Is Negative Punishment?"

What Is "Positive Punishment"?

What Is Positive Punishment
Image via Getty Images/Inti St. Clair

At first glance, "positive punishment" sounds a little counter-intuitive: If it's positive, that means it's good, right? But if it's a punishment, shouldn't it be bad, or "negative"?

To clarify: 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.

"Positive punishment is the idea that something is added to the environment that would make the behavior cease," says Dr. Stacy Haynes, a specialist in the treatment of behavioral and emotional disturbance in children. 

As such, positive punishment involves introducing or adding some kind of undesirable consequence after an undesirable behavior is performed. The end goal is to decrease the likelihood that this particular behavior will happen again.

For example: Say that your child calls you a bad name and, as a result, you make him scrub the toilet or take out the trash for a week. This is a form of positive punishment because it "involves an aversive stimulus that is added to the situation," according to Verywell.

It's important to note, however, that this tool doesn't include spanking your child. We'll explain why in the next section.

Is Spanking an Effective Form of Positive Punishment?

Is Spanking an Effective Form of Positive Punishment
Image via Getty Images/PhotoAlto/Sandro Di Carlo Darsa

Using physical disciplinary methods like spanking as punishment could cause more harm than good when trying to correct a child's behavior, experts caution. In fact, it could cause them more harm and distress, which could exacerbate the situation.

“You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want,” Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., a Yale University psychology professor and director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, told the American Psychological Association (APA). “There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work.”

The APA stands behind “parents’ use of non-physical methods of disciplining children” and opposes “the use of severe or injurious physical punishment of any child." The organization said that bodily punishment can cause negative, long-term effects in children like "increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health."


How Do I Use Positive Punishment in Real Life?

Image via Getty Images/NataliaLeb

Here are some real-world examples of how and when you can use positive punishment to eliminate some types of unwanted behaviors:

1) Your Child Was Mean to a Friend

"For those behaviors, call your child out," says Tina Nocera, the author of "Parents Ask, Experts Answer" and Parental Wisdom blog. Reprimand your child and explain why it's bad to hurt people's feelings so that they understand. Just make sure that you do this in private.

"Never embarrass a child in front of others," says Nocera. The child will understand that you mean business, and that being mean is not acceptable. Ideally, they'll even gain a little empathy for the child they were mean to.

2) Your Child Doesn't Follow Your Rules

You've told your children to stop playing ball inside the house, which is against your home rules. But, surprise surprise, they don't listen.

How do you correct the behavior? Have them do a chore instead -- perhaps you can have them do some weeding outside. Then, they can continue to throw the ball outside after the weeds are pulled. This way, they're expending their energy in a positive way by pulling the weeds.

3) Your Child Stole an Item From a Store

Let's say you're in a candy store and your child decides to steal a chocolate bar. Once you realize what's happened, go with your child to return the candy (or, if they've already eaten it, go back with them to apologize and pay what you owe).

Depending on your child's age, you could also have them write a paragraph about why stealing is wrong, and why they should never steal again. Having to write this essay will make the lesson stick a little better. You don't have to do anything with the essay after you read it together -- you can keep it, or you can let your child keep it. It's the process of writing the lesson down that's most important here.

4) Your Child Lied to You 

Did your child tell you the dog ate their homework? Or maybe they told you they completed their homework assignments when they really didn't.

Instead of trying to catch your child in a lie (perhaps by asking them what their teacher thought of their homework), let them know that you found out that they didn't do their homework. Tell them that they need to go to bed 15 minutes early tonight. That way, you've added a direct consequence (i.e., going to bed early) for the bad behavior (i.e., the lying).

5) Your Kids Are Fighting

You tell them to play nicely. If they ignore you and continue to bicker, give them some chores to work on -- whether together or on their own. This will serve as a reminder for next time that if they argue, they will need to do chores as a result.

6) Your Child Keeps Getting Out of Bed

"Take him back to bed as many times as it takes. Your child will learn that nighttime is for sleeping and that you are serious about enforcing bedtime," says Nocera.

Remember to use positive punishment immediately after an unwanted behavior has happened, and in a matter-of-fact way. Just remember that whatever method you choose should be specific, immediate, and make sense for the behavior, says Dr. Stavinoha.


Is Positive Punishment an Effective Parenting Technique?

Image via Getty Images/Ashley Corbin-Teich

The short answer: Yes and no.

In order for positive punishment to be effective, parents or caregivers must implement the strategy correctly, be diligent, and stay the course.

"It might stop bad behavior temporarily, but there is no psychological research that says it's an effective parenting tool," says Dr. Pete Stavinoha, the co-author of "Stress-Free Discipline" and director of the pediatric neuropsychology service at the Children's Medical Center of Dallas.

Robert Larzelere, Ph.D., of Oklahoma State University, presented a different take at the 2015 American Psychological Association's annual convention in Toronto, Canada. “Parental discipline and positive parenting techniques are often polarized in popular parenting resources and in parenting research conclusions,” said Larzelere. “But scientifically supported parenting interventions for young defiant children have found that [different] types of assertive tactics can work if they’re administered correctly.”


Originally written by Laura Agadoni. Updated by Katie Bonadies and Rachel Murphy on 27 June 2017.

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