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

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.