Difference Between Being Sorry and Punishment

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

One of the great responsibilities parents have is to get their children to behave well when out in public. If parents succeed, then their children become well-adjusted adults and society views those parents as having done their job well. If they fail, there is a steep cost for parents where condemnation often comes from the look on other adults’ faces or having another adult come up to the parents to ask why the parents can’t get their children to behave.

The pressure to have well-mannered children can be a source of significant stress for parents. As a result, parents resort to a dizzying array of techniques to punish their children when they misbehave. The problem is that many parents become confused about the ultimate goal of punishment. The ultimate goal is to prevent future occurrences of the misbehavior that just occurred.

However, we frequently hear parents who have punished a child and say that they stopped doing that particular punishment because the child did not seem sorry enough for her behavior. Punishment is not meant to make children sorry or guilty for what they have just done. In fact, young children are unlikely to feel sorry or guilty for their actions as they are still learning what is acceptable versus unacceptable behavior. Until children are able to internalize the rules that have been set out for them, they are unlikely to show much sorrow or guilt after misbehaving and being punished.

Even though children will not always feel sorry for misbehaving, punishment should still be utilized. Effective punishment should always immediately follow a misbehavior. It is considered an effective punishment if the child reduces that behavior in the future. Eventually children will start to misbehave less as they internalize the rules on how to behave appropriately. It is important to realize that punishment can take some time to be effective.

However, every child is different and what works for one child may not work for another. The key is to realize when a punishment is ineffective and be able to move on to another one. Simply doing more of an ineffective punishment will not make it magically effective. Putting a child in time out for longer periods of time for the same behavior over and over again is a sign that time out is not an effective form of punishment for that child. If that happens, it is time to try something else like having the child lose some privileges.

In addition to utilizing punishment, parents should also reward children for good behaviors. Punishment only emphasizes to a child what not to do, rewards give them insight into what parents want them to do. Using both techniques will make children behave appropriately more quickly than either technique alone.

Of course there are children who continue to misbehave even when parents are doing everything right regarding punishment. If this is the case, it is time to seek outside help with mental health professionals who can work with parents in a more intensive manner to resolve the issue.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on November 27, 2013.

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