Bad Boy! Very bad boy!

Oh the memories. Image courtesy of DOMANTAS JANKAUSKAS.

Bad boy!

Parents are, by and large, good things. For the most part they know more than their kids. What kids don’t is how their parents learn the black bag things.

You know, black ops. Psy ops. The stuff from the badlands. The stuff that parents invent in the night under cover of darkness as they huddle in their covens.

I realized that my parents had graduated from this particular school of parenting when they revealed the spoon.

Not any spoon. No way. We were good with spoons. We ate from them, flicked food from them, played music with them, played sword fights with them (I know, knives are better but spoons have their place), but not this guy.

As a way of modifying our behavior, my parents used to smack us with a wooden spoon. We had to be pretty deserving, because they were pretty patient. But it was never really that effective. It was light, so hard to get good force. It didn’t bend so wasn’t whippy. And it broke on us. I remember my mother chasing my older brother around the house with it and snapping it on the lounge door as he slammed it behind him. He always figured he could keep running and she’d give up.

So. They huddled. They thought dark things. They plotted. Probably asked the neighbors too. And then they got it. The new guy. The RED spoon. Plastic. Nigh on unbreakable. Ostensibly, they bought it to use when they were preserving tomatoes and fruit. We knew otherwise. What dark mind thought this up we wondered. It was only a matter of time…

Sure enough. And man it hurt. Woo wee. That sucker stung! We tiptoed around it. We revered it. William Golding could have used it instead of a conch. Last I checked, they had it. THIRTY YEARS LATER! What is with that?! Perverse. Sure sure, it’s for the preserves, not the memories… Dark.

They, like countless others, used punishment to alter behavior.


In our context, the term Punishment has a narrower definition than when it’s used in everyday life. For students of human behavior like you, we’re talking about punishment as a component of Operant Conditioning. Along with Reinforcement, it’s one of the two key elements of behavior change. There are two types of each element: Positive and Negative.

Reinforcement aims to strengthen a behavior, whereas Punishment aims to weaken a behavior.

And here’s the grand unifying schedule…

Positive Reinforcement adds something as a consequence, to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again

Negative Reinforcement removes something as a consequence, to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again

and by contrast…

Positive Punishment adds something aversive as a consequence, to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again

Negative Punishment removes something pleasant as a consequence, to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again

You could also represent it like this:

Adds something Removes something
Increases behaviour Positive Reinforcement Negative Reinforcement
Decreases behavior Positive Punishment Negative Punishment

A cautionary note

Here, and you’ll remember this from our discussion of Reinforcement, it’s wrong for us to talk about a person or animal being punished. Like most things there are industry-specific terms that have different shades of meaning within the industry*. For us, we’re talking about the behavior, so it is the behavior that is punished, to reduce the likelihood of it occurring again. Good?

Some examples

  1. If I criticize my employee for being late, and this causes them to be on time, then I have Positively Punished the lateness
  2. If I remove access to the staff lounge for the late employee, and this causes them to be on time, I have Negatively Punished the lateness
  3. If I withdraw access to my car because my teenager was late home, and this causes them to be on time, I have Negatively Punished staying out late
  4. If I give my teenager extra chores for being late home, and this causes them to be on time, I have Positively Punished staying out late
  5. If my dog bites me because I tried to get his bone while he was chewing on it, and this decreases the likelihood of me trying to get his bone while he’s chewing, what happened?

Some guidance

Remembering that this is about behavior change, and punishing a behavior to weaken it, we’ve got to apply punishment carefully.

Particularly with children and animals, swiftness is important so that the connection between cause and effect is obvious. “Wait till your father gets home” kind of loses the benefit. With employees, timeliness is also good. The longer the delay, the more other factors come into play.

Punishment needs to be of enough magnitude to be useful. Telling my teenager off for being three hours late without a good reason may not be the strength of consequence the behavior requires.

Finally, it needs to be delivered . I’ve heard parents say, and maybe you have too “I’m going to count to three and then… One. Two! I said I’m going to count to three and then… One. Two! All right, I’m going to…”. If you’re going to do it, do it. If you’re not, find a different approach to modifying behavior.

So here’s the take home bit

Punishment can be a tricky thing. Remember we’re talking about punishing a behavior to decrease the likelihood of it occurring again, rather than punishing a person.

If this is something you use as a teacher, parent or employer, have a good hard look at what exactly you’re punishing, and put it alongside how you reinforce. Sometimes we’re not reinforcing or punishing what we think and, sometimes, the consequence can have the opposite intent.

For example, punishing some kids for being naughty causes them to be naughtier. What’s happening is that our attention is positively reinforcing the naughtiness, rather than the punishment weakening it. Here, there are obviously other forces at work, and we’d need to be aware of what else is going on.

At times, the lines between reinforcement and punishment can be a bit blurry, and one can look like another. It’s important to be clear about what behavior you’re targeting, and how. It’s certainly possible to use them in sequence, but try to work only on one or two things at a time. The key thing is to find the critical behavior that needs change. Good luck.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Positive Punishment, Negative Punishment

What have you noticed?

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*Like the time I was on a training course and the trainer asked the obvious question… “What does CNS stand for?”. A number of things influenced my decision to blurt.

  1. I fancied myself on this one
  2. I was once really good at quizzes
  3. This question came during my good at quizzes phase
  4. It was training relating to health, the room was full of mental health nurses many of whom I knew, and I figured I was onto a good thing
  5. I have little self-control for this kind of thing anyway

Central Nervous System” I blurted. (The crowd roared, I was sure of it.)

The room, however, snickered. So did the trainer, a nurse.

Eyes rolled, shoulders shuddered.

“Ah, no” he said.

“It means Clinical Nurse Specialist”.

If Facebook existed then, I would have unfriended 20 people immediately. It only means that if you’re a nurse, which I’m not.

I’m still right.


About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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4 Responses to Bad Boy! Very bad boy!

  1. Dinah Roberts says:

    Awesome. Helpful. Needed to read this today.
    We had a red spoon too!!! After the wooden one broke on a ‘not to be named’ sister’s backside!

    • Does the red spoon live on? Bet there’s a generation of kids who had one too! We broke a couple of the wooden ones on various things, but the red one was a whole new ball game.

      • Dinah Roberts says:

        Ahh no, it died an agonizing death – it inflicted so much pain in it’s life time it was only fair. Is my mother signed up to this? Probably not – it may have been accidentally melted…. But, if this information should reach the aforementioned ………I know nothink.

      • Of course I’ll say nothing. Luckily the internet is really private.

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