A very important issue that seems to accentuate during the last few years is that of right and wrong ways of raising a child. One key distinction that isn’t very clear is the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment. People think it’s the same thing but it’s not. The difference is subtle but very important. But first of all we must understand what reinforcement is. Reinforcement, as a psychological term refers to any stimulus that increases or strengthens a specific behavior or response. Both negative reinforcement and punishment are part of a larger group of four kinds of reinforcements which also include positive reinforcement and extinction. All these reinforcements have to do with the adding or removing of pleasant or unpleasant stimulus respectively, to encourage or discourage a certain behavior or response.   


In the specific case of negative reinforcement we are dealing with the removal of an adverse stimulus thus rewarding the subject, and creating a favorable outcome. On the other hand, punishment, involves introducing an aversive stimulus to discourage a specific behavior. As we can see, differences between negative reinforcement and punishment aren’t so great, in the sense that they search for the same end result, but the method thru which they get there differs.


To make things clearer let’s take an example. A child is nagged by his mother to clean his room every day. The child complains to his friends about the constant nagging. After a week of being nagged the child decides to clean his room and finds out that the nagging stopped. Thus by removing the negative stimulus which was the mothers nagging the child is encouraged to repeat the specific behavior of cleaning his room. This is negative reinforcement.  Using the same example let’s try to define punishment. After the child was nagged for a week for not cleaning his room, seeing that this has no effect on the child, the mom decided to ground him for a day in his room. After that, the child cleaned his room so that he wouldn’t be grounded anymore. The negative stimulus that was introduced here was the grounding for one day in the room, which created an unpleasant outcome for the child. Being faced with this outcome the child decided to clean his room and thus avoid getting grounded again.


The difference between negative reinforcement and punishment is one very present in most child raising books.  In recent studies the long term effects of punishment seem to be less effective than those of negative reinforcement. That is because the fear of the negative stimulus is temporary, and after the threat disappears, the normal behavior can be started up again. This is also true to some extent when it comes to negative reinforcement. The effects are temporary as well, but the idea that the outcome will be pleasant seems to be a bigger incentive than that of avoiding an unpleasant one.  These results seem to confirm the idea that punishment isn’t necessarily the best way to teach children discipline. In opposition to this idea of punishing a child for his mistakes is the more and more popular concept of treating a child as an equal. This implies listening to what the child has to say without interrupting him or her, trying to understand his side of the story. After that, a parent should try to explain in clear and firm voice that what he or she did was wrong and what will be the consequences of his actions. This way a child will learn to understand the relation between what he does and the consequences of his actions, as opposed to becoming scared or baring a grudge against his parents because he feels persecuted. If he or she is made to understand that these are the rules and everybody follows them, including the parents, than child will get a better grip on reality rather than harboring resentment. And that resentment comes just from the fact that he doesn’t understand why he has been punished and the parents don’t take the time to communicate with him or her.     


Punishment is considered an old fashioned technique of educating a child, which is mostly true, but it shouldn’t be disregarded altogether in favor of negative reinforcement. The difference between negative reinforcement and punishment is not the desired effect but the method thru which to get there. So negative reinforcement appears to have longer lasting effect on the child and thus prove a better technique. Probably a middle ground between negative reinforcement and punishment is the best solution, but there isn’t a tried and tested method that is sure to bring perfect results every time out there. So for all you parents out there, my recommendation is to not be afraid to trust your instincts in most cases.

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