Thursday, November 1, 2012
Canned Punishments: Apps, Advice, and Erroneous Assumptions
People are really committed to the idea that punishment is the best form of child guidance, aren’t they? Yesterday two interesting messages about this came across my virtual desk. One was the suggestion of a nanny website that phone apps will make punishment easy and effective. The other was the blog of an adoptive mother who recounted how her “attachment therapist” had advised methods like locking a teenage daughter in the bathroom for several days as ways to a) make her attached to the adoptive mother, and b) behave the way the mother wanted her to.
In both cases, the adult action was clearly a punishment, whether or not anyone wanted to use the term “consequence”. The child did something that the adult disliked; the adult responded with an action that was expected to be unpleasant for the child; the expectation was that the child would not do the disliked act again. If the child did do the disliked thing again, the plan was to escalate the punishment. I refer to this strategy as “canned punishment”, because it is not shaped particularly to the situation, the individual, or the all-important time factor that determines whether punishment effectively reduces an undesirable behavior. Its “canned” nature is evident in the idea that when the punishment is ineffective, the adult simply does more of the same thing, rather than examining the situation to see whether a different approach might be more effective.
The nanny outfit has been in touch with me before, as have several others. I think this is the one that suggested Tabasco sauce on the tongue as an appropriate method for nannies to use. They seem eager to have their website mentioned, even though when I’ve mentioned it in the past I’ve criticized it unmercifully. (Parents, if you employ a nanny, you may want to make sure that she is not reading their advice!)
This time, the nanny site suggests “10 iPhone apps that help with discipline” and describe them as “most popular and useful for keeping up with kids’ behavior”. Here are a couple of the goodies :
“Timeout—Ultimate discipline tool—Tracking the length of a timeout to provide kids with a visual representation of how long they are sentenced to this punishment is a snap with this application….”
“Tymoot-- Designed by a parent for parents… The Wheel of Discipline feature that allows your children to spin the virtual wheel in order to be ‘sentenced’ to one of eight customizable punishments”.
Think about the “timeout” method first. Timeout is not intended to be used as a punishment and would not necessarily be effective if it were used that way. The points of timeout are first to remove the child from any social situation that is rewarding bad behavior (like other kids laughing), and second, to interfere with a behavior sequence and help the child move to different behavior. Because these are the goals, “time-in”, in which the child stays close to an adult for a period of time, may be as effective as timeout, or even better. The length of the timeout or its discomfort is not the point. Neither is it the goal of timeout to exert adult authority or to encourage wrangling with an adult about how much longer it is to go on--- the adult needs to display warmth, sympathy, and an interest in helping the child gain control over behavior. For the adult to use a “canned” approach is to remove the personal and emotional support that is key to working with young children.
Second—about this Wheel of Discipline. Such a method delays the punishment,which needs to be immediate if it is to be effective. In addition, it makes the situation into a game, inserting a reward period before the punishment and thus effectively reinforcing the undesired behavior. It is worrisome to think of naïve nannies or parents trying to use this method to quell genuinely concerning behavior like running into the street or leaning over a banister, where ineffective guidance can put the child into serious danger.
All right, enough about the nannies. Let’s go on to my second “canned punishment example”. This is to be found at http://www.adoptionblogs.com/weblogs/author/donnav. Donna V. has three adopted children, siblings 16, 14, and 9. And she has an “attachment therapist” who is instructing her about how to handle the children’s sometimes undesirable behavior, which she naturally attributes to Reactive Attachment Disorder. You will understand where we are on this when I point out that the children ride horses every week to treat their RAD (see http://childmyths.blogspot.com/2011/02/clever-hans-rides-again-equestrian.html.) Donna and her attachment therapist believe that the children must give up their wish to be in control in order to “bond”, and that only “bonding” (undefined) will correct such behavior problems as lying and stealing. Donna had been confining the 14-year-old girl to her bedroom when she did not meet the standard of being “respectful, responsible, and fun to be around”, but the therapist felt this wasn’t working because the girl was too comfortable. The isolation was then moved to the bathroom, where the girl spent 6 days and 2 nights. Then she said she was happy, was cooperative, etc.
Most interestingly, in her Aug. 20 blog post, Donna V. describes the treatment as if it is a form of behavior modification that is withholding reinforcement for behaviors that were previously reinforced. She remarks that “as my kids start to respond to the new techniques and to the horse therapy, some of their behavior is actually getting worse. Some days I think that the extinction bursts are going to kill us.” She then accurately defines an extinction burst as “the temporary increase in the frequency, intensity, and/or duration of the behavior targeted for extinction”. Apparently the assumption is that any undesired behavior is occurring because it was rewarded in the past in some way, and that now withholding the reward will eventually cause the behavior to disappear (“extinguish”, in behavior mod terms). How this relates to needing an isolation area to be uncomfortable, or to bonding, or to horseback riding, is far from clear. It’s also unclear how an extinction (non-reinforcement) procedure can influence any behavior that is self-rewarding-- and maybe that’s why she has turned back to attempts at punishment by taking away comfort or gratifying experience like having a cellphone. In spite of the canned punishment suggested by the therapist, such punishments are very difficult to employ because of the essential timing factor. By the time the mother has discovered a lie or theft, the effective time to use punishment has passed.
Maybe a good start would be to abandon the goal of being “fun to be around”, which is an ill-defined set of behaviors. Certainly punishment for not being fun is difficult to work out, because there are so many ways not to be fun.
My suggestions? Stop worrying about how to make the child more uncomfortable. Don’t look for a punishment that will do the job in a simple way. Seek a knowledgeable therapist who practices evidence-based methods. Realize that effective child guidance does not come in canned, frozen, or evaporated varieties, but must be worked out in individual ways within a specific family context. Keep in mind that teenagers are naturally working on the establishment of autonomy, and asking them to relinquish all control is not developmentally appropriate. Don’t think that a teenager can “bond” to a mother in the sense that a toddler forms an attachment to an adult. And, if you want to ride horses, have a good time, but don’t imagine that this is therapy-- any more than any other pleasurable activity that helps modulate moods.