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I am Rajiv Sinha, 32 years old, having a shop on C.G. road. I married before 8 years with Rashmi and today we have 2 children 6 and 3 years old. Since the last 1 year, we are having a lot of disagreements around how we should discipline our children and especially around the issue of punishment. Can you give an idea of what should be the norms of punishment that we should be following?


Punishment is the presentation of an aversive stimulus contingent on the occurrence of a particular response. It is to decrease the probability that the behavior will occur. It is generally delivered immediately on the occurrence of the behavior. As a rule, punishment should only be used in situations in which the behavior to be changed is injurious to self or others. It is a less useful procedure as it may produce unwanted effects like aggressive behavior and the possibility of inflicting physical damage is always present. The use of punishment in various situations should be carefully supervised and should follow certain rules. The behavior to be addressed should have been resistant to appropriate behavior change procedures like positive and negative reinforcements. Behaviors incompatible with the problem behavior can often be reinforced and the problem thus eliminated. In addition, the behavior to be changed should be severely incapacitating and should threaten physical integrity. Punishment procedures that themselves physical injury should not be used. If effectively used, punishment rapidly brings a behavior under control and behaviors can then be built up with the use of positive reinforcement. You may also need to be aware of the concept of reciprocal influences since human behavior occurs within an interpersonal context. It is set in motion by the excessive and inconsistent use of punishment on the part of the parents. For e.g. a mother may severely scold her small son, who in response may whine or have a temper tantrum. If the mother then responds by talking to the child to calm him down, the child stops whining. Thus, the child’s whining punishes the mother’s scolding and makes her less likely to scold in the future. The mother’s attention to the child’s whining reinforces that unpleasant behavior on the part of the child. Such a behavior pattern, when well established in the child, is viewed as unpleasant and aggressive by others and increases the likelihood that the child will be rejected by parents, peers and teachers, thus initiating a complex series of events, such as poor school performance and joining a deviant peer group, which predisposes to delinquent behavior. The other concept is of extinction. Disordered behavior is often developed and maintained by reinforcement in the form of attention from others. In such cases, you must identify the reinforcer and remove it from his environment – this is extinction. For e.g. the case of a young child who cries interminably before going to sleep. When the mother puts the child to bed, the crying begins after a few minutes, and the mother returns to find out what the problem is. She then engages in some activity. When she leaves, the pattern is repeated. Clearly, maternal attention is reinforcing the crying. The idea is to persuade the mother not to return to the child once the child is settled for the night. However, she needs to be warned that the amount of crying may increase for two or three nights before it diminishes. That phenomenon is known as extinction burst: the person exhibits more behavior in order to increase the probability of gaining positive reinforcement. When the reinforcement is not forthcoming, the behavior diminishes in frequency.  In today’s world, the concept of positive reinforcement is gaining more merit than punishment. It is the process by which certain consequences of behavior raise the probability that the behavior will occur again. On the whole, positive reinforcers are viewed as pleasant (e.g. food, attention, praise). Sometimes scolding may reinforce some behavior, as it is a form of attention. The other concept of negative reinforcement is the process by which behavior, which is undesired, is negatively reinforced like restriction or time out for undesired behavior. When parents just shout or scold or slap a child, they give up their position as mature moral guides. They descend to an angry child’s level, it is only a question then of who can shout louder or longer. The new philosophy is to treat the children in a friendlier, trusting spirit, preserve own self—respect and elicit the respect of the children. This approach is treated as mutual respect. It can and does produce children who are cooperative, flexible, polite and warm-hearted. No matter how well intentioned children may be, they start out with no experience at all and with impulsive natures. They need lots of supervision and clear guidance. They should be taught what no means. There are many reasons for our losing our patience so easily; primarily because most of us were treated impatiently in our childhood. Warnings are second-best to the kind of discipline or relationship in which the parent explains, in a manner that shows respect for the child and gains respect from the child, what is harmful about an action or lack of action. The parent can ask in a trusting tone for the child’s cooperation. Warnings should come only when this mutual respect has been broken down. In addition, this warning should not sound like a dare to the child. In other words, the warning gives the child a choice: to be meek and obey or to be independent and disobey. In addition, since impulsiveness and the drive to be independent are strong in a child this age, the cards are stacked against the parent. Consistency is often emphasized as a necessary factor in good discipline. Consistency does not have to be absolute but the parents’ control will be better if it is they who suggest the exception or if they agree immediately without an argument to the child’s special request. Do not give in just because a child will not stop nagging.

Dr. Darshan Shah

Dr. Darshan Shah, a renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist, is committed to make a difference in the area of mental health and help individuals cope with feelings and symptoms; change behavior patterns that may contribute to one’s illness and henceforth contribute to their newly improved pathway of life.