The Problem with Punishment: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Shot of a father disciplining his daughter at home

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Daddy and I disagree about appropriate consequences for our three-year-old’s misbehaviors. She gets into food when I’m not in the kitchen and leaves a mess. She tries to put clothes on our very tolerant old cat and doesn’t read his cues that he’s had enough. She throws things when she’s frustrated or angry.

What’s a good punishment for a three-year-old?

Time Out Or No Screens


Research on the effect of punishment on children’s immediate behavior and on its lasting effects suggests that is better to steer children in the right direction than to make a commotion when they go off course. The former is known as teaching new behavior, positive guidance, or democratic or authoritative discipline. This study reported that when children were treated this way as preschoolers, as adolescents they “were competent and well-adjusted”. In contrast, preschoolers whose parents were overly coercive or who were indifferent to the children’s misbehavior “were notably incompetent and maladjusted” 10 years later.

Both Time Out and taking away something the child likes are power moves. In case anyone is still on the fence about physical discipline, which is an extreme power move, the research clearly shows that hurting children often leads them to physically hurt others.

Reasons for Misbehavior

There are always reasons behind a misbehavior.

The reason your little one is getting into food is probably that she’s hungry. Anticipate this with regularly timed meals and snacks. As long as she’s a healthy weight, you can arrange the kitchen with help-yourself snacks – in small portions – that are easy for her to manage on her own. If she can open the refrigerator, keep a lidded cup of watered juice at the ready. Prepare cubes of cheese or washed blueberries in a container she can easily open. A low shelf in the pantry can be stocked with easy-to-open plastic storage boxes of whole grain crackers or pretzels. Anything that requires adult help should be out of reach, and preferably out of sight.

A three-year-old is just learning to read and respond appropriately to others’ emotions. If the cat isn’t clear with his “I’ve had enough” body language, you should effectively speak for him and redirect your daughter to dressing something or someone else – a doll, herself, or even you. Similarly speak up for a playmate as needed and help your daughter speak up as well when a playmate isn’t reading her signals. Social skills benefit tremendously from patient guidance.

Frustration is common for young children. A good night’s sleep, healthy diet, and ample exercise will help to keep her on a more even keel, but she may need specific help to avoid getting frustrated. Is she trying to do something with her hands beyond their strength and coordination? Break down the steps or let her help you to do it. Is she frustrated with you? Set predictable routines and limits so she learns what to expect from you. Is she frustrated with things no one can control, like the weather? Sympathize with her and redirect her disappointment to a new plan.

Benevolent Power  

Avoid a power struggle with a three-year-old with consistent, reasonable limits. Both adults in the house need to use the exact same limits for your child to easily remember them. Outside of these everyday controls on behavior, if you find you are in disagreement with your little one about something she wants, consider her request. Will it affect the schedule, the budget, your energy level, the cat’s (or anyone else’s) feelings, or cause damage to a person, pet, or property? Then give her the reason you either can or cannot grant this request. If you are consistent in the way in which you handle decisions that are outside the regular house rules, she will more quickly be able to make such decisions for herself. Your wisdom, experience, and ultimate responsibility for how this decision plays out set a good example for her future decision making and self-discipline.

The preeminent organization for early childhood professionals, the National Association for the Education of Young Children advises that “Punishment makes young children feel stressed, hurt, rejected, and angry; these feelings make it harder for children to learn emotional and social skills.”

Positive guidance, on the other hand, “means helping young children understand they can learn from their mistakes, and it starts with showing them how.”

Time In

Young children have a minimum daily requirement for positive attention from their beloved grown-ups. Is it possible that your relationship is more about waiting for your child to mess up, so you and or Dad can respond with a punishment, than about assuring and being in awe that she is gaining skills and knowledge about herself and the world every day?

Re-examine your role in your daughter’s life. With smaller families being the norm and fewer opportunities to play with the neighbors, a child will benefit from playtime with her parents. Devote a portion of each day to spending time as a playmate, albeit one who is more cooperative than another three-year-old. 

Maybe some of your time together is for watching a video or playing an age appropriate video game or visiting with a cousin in a video chat. Screen time needn’t be used as a treat nor taken away as punishment. (One hour per day is plenty.)

Spending time together, doing something you both enjoy, is a good way to prevent misbehavior.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, February 27: Effective Discipline Techniques; March 13: “I Had it First!” Teaching Conflict Resolution; March 27: Ages and Stages 0-5-years.

The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.