Punishment, Parenting and Safety

Guest post by Judy Agnew

punishment parenting and safety

Recently, I came across an article that caught my eye: Parents’ Harsh Words Might Make Teen Behavior Worse.  As the parent of a 13 year-old and someone who has written extensively on the ill effects of punishment in organizational safety, it only took the first few lines before it struck a chord on both counts:

Most parents yell at their kids at some point.  It often feels like the last option for getting children to pay attention and shape up.” 

When I think of the times I yell as a parent it is born out of frustration—the sense that I have tried everything else and nothing has worked.  There are parallels to the use of negative consequences in safety.  They are often used when management has “tried everything else” and nothing has worked.  They have trained, reminded, prompted, put up signs, etc. and still people engage in at-risk behavior.  The problem, in these instances, both parenting and managing safety, is that we are largely trying to change behavior with antecedents.  Unfortunately antecedents don’t result in lasting behavior change.  Enter the frustration.

Regardless of what prompts it, the critical question is: do negative consequences work?  The research summarized in the article above says no.  In fact, it suggests that negative consequences actually make matters worse.  Those parents who used more “harsh words” when their kids were 13 were more likely to see an increase in poor behavior a year later.  The exact opposite of what most people would expect.  In addition, those teens showed more signs of depression and increased tension in their relationships with their parents.  The article goes on to quote Alan Kazdin, a parenting expert, who confirms that punishment is ineffective at improving behavior.

This is yet another study, in a long line of studies, which warns us of the detrimental effects of punishment.  Increased undesired behavior, more tension, poorer relationships—sounds like a bad recipe for parenting and, similarly, organizational safety.

This article was a good reminder that I am on the cusp of some challenging years ahead with my teenager.  What I need most of all to help my child survive and thrive the next several years is to maintain a good relationship with him.  I need him to talk to me.  I need him to trust me.  I need him to come to me when he has messed up, when he is confused.  The more I yell, take away his phone, ground him (i.e., punish him), the less likely he is to trust, talk and engage with me.

What leaders need to help employees stay safe on the job is no different.  Leaders need employees who will talk to them, report hazards and near misses, share concerns, and trust them.  The more leaders use discipline, negative feedback, critical comments, threats, etc., the less likely employees will trust, talk and engage in safety.

This doesn’t mean there is no place for punishment in parenting or safety.  There is.  But given the side effects, it should be a “last resort” after other positive consequences (not just antecedents) have been used to get desired behaviors to happen more often.  By focusing on what you want, instead of what you don’t want, and positively reinforcing desired behavior, you will find yourself less tempted to use punishment and more importantly, you will be much more effective in your relationships—at home and at work.


Read more about the importance of relationships in Safety in these articles and blogs.

Study the Science of Behavior Analysis in-depth at The Aubrey Daniels Institute.

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  1. Differential reinforcement of alternative or incompatible behavior are wonderful behavioral reductive techniques that according to research are quite efficacious. Simply put, reinforce(encourage) the individual’s desirable behavior and place their inappropriate behavior on extinction (ignore). Focus on good behavior and reward while ignoring inappropriate behavior whenever possible. In the beginning this may be difficult to do but after awhile, positive behavioral change begins to emerge and is long lasting!

  2. How can you positively reinforce the behavior you want, if it’s not happening? There is an assumption here that, for everyone, ignoring something will make it go away.

    If I ignore the behavior of someone walking through a hearing conservation area without earplugs in when: there are signs (antecedent for sure), they have been informed of the importance of if they don’t wear them (NFU consequences), there are earplugs readily available, etc. etc. Then what is it I have to positively reinforce? Maybe that person just wants to be left alone to do their own thing and ignoring the situation is actually positively reinforcing to them.

    Certainly managers spend too much time on punishment (and I see many who punish without yelling) and in a blanket manner. However, these articles swing the pendulum completely to the other side, but also in a blanket manner.

  3. Tim,
    You are correct—you cannot positively reinforce a behavior if it is not happening. You are also correct that it is a mistake to ignore at risk behavior. If a behavior in fact never happens (and if the person knows and is capable of doing what is expected), then it is appropriate to use negative consequences to “jump start” the behavior. But that is only the first step. If you want the behavior to persist, you must follow up with positive reinforcement to strengthen that behavior to habit. This is the piece most people skip (both parents and managers). Negative reinforcement leads to “just enough to get by” performance. Like the speeder on the freeway who slows down when driving by the police car and then speeds back up again, safety performance managed with negative reinforcement tends to be temporary.

    I want to also point out that in my experience it is rare for someone to never perform a behavior safely. Most problems with safety behavior are inconsistency problems. People do it right some of the time but not all of the time. When that is the case the best option is to catch them when they are doing it right and positively reinforce it. Unfortunately most of us are more likely to notice what people are doing wrong (kids, direct reports, bosses, peers) than we are to notice when they are doing it right. Part of the solution, therefore, is to train yourself to look for desired behavior. Our clients find that when they start looking for safe behavior, rather than looking for at-risk behavior, they can reinforce the safe which not only increases the specific safe behaviors reinforced, but tends to generalize to other safe behavior.

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