On the whole, American parents are far too reliant on punishment when it comes to their discipline. Under normal circumstances, punishment should be something you rarely do – a last resort when all other measures have failed. Even then, it’s only a tool to help you discipline, not an end to discipline itself.

Why your focus should be on correcting stepchildren, not punishing them

The very meaning of discipline means “to teach,” and children aren’t taught very much by punishment other than to feel bad and be upset at the parent who punished them. Biological parents can sometimes get away with a discipline regimen that is heavy on punishment. Stepparents will not. So it’s important to re-evaluate your techniques and find ways to tilt this balance in the other direction. Your technique should be AT LEAST four-fifths guidance and one-fifth punishment, and the ideal ratio is more like 99 to 1. If your current approach is a little too reliant on punishment, you need to change.

It’s important to recognize that punishment HAS NEVER been a necessary aspect of discipline, no matter how much people try to connect the two. Children are born with the instinct and desire to be prosocial. When they veer away from this path, it’s usually because…

  1. They don’t know any better or don’t understand what’s expected of them;
  2. They lack the ability to control their impulse or emotions;
  3. A bad environment has somehow disrupted their normal desire to behave and earn the approval of adults. (Many stepfamily situations certainly qualify as such a bad environment, often times because of the situation itself and through no fault of the parents.)

None of these scenarios call for punishment. Your job is not to make children feel bad for their mistakes or misbehavior. In most cases, children already feel bad, which is why they acted antisocially to begin with. Your job is to help them develop greater empathy and understanding about how their actions affect others, and to provide a template that will help them deal with frustrations in a constructive way. Removing a child from the activity and talking to them is often all that’s needed. Shaming a child, making them feel bad, or assessing penalties typically undermines your goals. Not only do these things create a hostile mentality that gets in the way of empathy and understanding, but it’s bound to create more of the negative feelings that cause children to act out in the first place.

When to punish stepchildren

Many stepparents attempt to use punishment in situations where it isn’t warranted, or when it will be counterproductive to their goals. Here are some times when it’s best to leave punishment out of the equation:

  1. Avoid punishing stepchildren for emotional outbursts. Remember that you can’t dictate their feelings, and you certainly can’t punish them into loving you. If they want to hate you, they are allowed to hate you, they simply need to treat you with a modicum of respect while hating you. Avoid the tendency to penalize stepchildren when their anger gets the best of them. Even if they cross the line from time to time, let them know that they’ve crossed the line, but don’t go seeking revenge for the hurtful things they say. Such an approach only ensures more bad blood between the two of you.
  2. Don’t punish children if the rules and expectations in question aren’t overtly clear.

Situations when punishment might be effective:

  1. When the consequences of a particular action aren’t immediately clear, and you want to assign a penalty that will dissuade them from such behavior in the future. (For example, if a child steals, make them return the item and then pay a penalty of “interest and court costs” to you or the victim, even if they weren’t caught doing it.)
  2. When it comes to controlling a child’s uglier human instincts. Although we all lean towards prosocial behavior, each of us is also prone to greed, or towards bullying behavior (bullying, sadly, can be quite pleasurable and satisfying, which is why so many kids – and adults – engage in it). These dark tendencies sometimes need to be held in check through punishment.
  3. When logical consequences or reasoning don’t seem to be enough to dissuade a child from a particular activity or behavior.

How to punish stepchildren

  1. Once again, a reminder that it’s important to have the biological parent takes the lead at first. Keep yourself out of the punishment equation as much as possible.

  1. Instead of penalties, focus on the child’s feelings: What made them do this? What were they feeling at the time? Ask them to describe their emotions or their present state of mind. When a child does something wrong, most adults instantly jump towards discussing the feelings of the victim (“that’s not a nice thing to do, say you’re sorry!”) without even touching upon the aggressor’s feelings. This is a hopelessly flawed approach. It wasn’t the victim’s thoughts and feelings which prompted the misbehavior, and it’s not the victim’s thoughts and feelings that are going to prevent such behavior in the future.

Try reversing this script. When children do something wrong, you should certainly encourage them to feel empathy. But you need to get into the misbehaving child’s state of mind first. Show empathy and understanding for what they were feeling too, and then help them work on better ways to handle this situation in the future: “If a kid was upset at his stepsister, what are some other ways he might handle these feelings aside from hitting her?” Not only is this the only way to ensure a child starts learning something from their mistakes, but after being allowed to voice their feelings to you, it will make them much more cooperative about any punishment you still feel is necessary.

  1. Try to base your penalties on logical consequences as opposed to traditional punishment. Hitting a stepsister? I can’t allow you to hurt other people, so you need to find something else to play by yourself for a while. Causing problems? Remove yourself from this area of the house. Can’t talk nicely? Then I’m going to withdraw and refuse to listen until you can treat me with some respect. Always try to tie the punishment to the behavior in question.

  1. For more extensive information on these concepts, refer to the discipline information in our parenting handbook.