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Monday, 18 September 2000

Make The Punishment Fit The "Crime"

Written by  Esther Boylan Wolfson

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I write at length in this section about the Time-Out method. However, that method isn't appropriate in every situation.

If the punishment is directly related to the child's behavior, a child will be more likely to remember the punishment the next time around.

Making a child sit on her own in a chair once, twice, perhaps three times a day is more than enough time sitting alone. I don't know about your children, but mine seem to need intervention more than two or three times a day.

Not only that; time-out does not work for all children or for all parents.

So what should you do? Here's another good solution:

Find the punishment that fits the crime.

Why do we punish children? Yes, it's because we are angry. But most importantly, we punish a child to try and teach him not to use a specific behavior again.

Young children sometimes have a hard time connecting two unassociated experiences. So if the punishment is directly related to the child's behavior, a child will be more likely to remember the punishment the next time around.


Last week, my five-year-old spread ketchup all over the kitchen table. First of all, of course, he had to clean up the mess. But then came the real punishment:

I told him he would not be allowed to have ketchup for a week!

Now for us adults that may seem like a minor annoyance, but for my five-year-old this meant taking away the thing he likes best with food. It was a tough week (and yes he ate a bit less than usual), but I think it will be a long time before he colors with ketchup again.

Instead of taking away ketchup for a week, I could have taken away his Batman figures. He would have been very upset. But the next time he came across the bottle of ketchup, would he remember the connection between Batman and the ketchup bottle?

Will he remember the connection between playing with ketchup and not being allowed to eat ketchup now? No guarantee, but I personally would bet on it.


  • If your child hits another child with a toy... take away the toy for several days.

  • If your child does not behave with a playmate... do not invite friends over for the next week. (Or several days - you need to judge how long based on the severity of the behavior and how difficult the punishment may be for your child.)

  • If your child takes candy from the cupboard without permission...tell him that he will not be getting any treats for the rest of the day or for several days.

  • If your child makes a mess...make sure he is the one to clean it up.

  • If he refuses to pick up a toy... help him pick up the toy and then take the toy away for a specific period of time.

  • If your child hits or hurts another child while he is playing outside...bring him inside and do not allow him to play outside again for a while.

(Of course, he also must also apologize before playing with the child again.)

The above are only some suggestions based on experiences with my children and students. Obviously you need to adapt the concept to your specific situations with your children.

The key is to think of an experience to associate with this behavior that will make the child think twice before using it again.


The answer to the question depends on you and your child.

If time-out is working for you and you don't feel you need other methods right now...stick with time-out.

If time-out is not working for you...then try this method as an alternative.

Or... you can use a combination approach.

I find that with my children and students, no one method of behavior modification is sufficient. Time-out is great, but I don't want either my children or students to spend significant amounts of time sitting in a chair. So, I combine approaches.

I define for my kids and students the specific actions that may result in a time-out. When a child misbehaves in a way that is not on the time-out list, I go for a punishment that fits the crime. (There are also other approaches, which I will discuss in future articles.)

Is there always a punishment that fits the crime? Not always, but a little creative thinking can usually come up with something that has at least some connection.

The key to this whole theory of punishment is to teach our children, as early as possible, an important life lesson:


Last modified on Tuesday, 09 April 2013 15:17
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Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Wolfson , director of our Early Childhood Development Center is an Early Childhood Specialist, who received her BA in English Communications from Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University and an MA in Early Childhood Special Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, both in New York City. Esther worked as a pre-school special education teacher for seven years. Three of those years were spent working in a school for language delayed pre-schoolers, which is her area of specialty. Another special love of hers is cooking with young children. One of her most enjoyable projects was developing a program for cooking with pre-school children for three special education programs. Esther and her husband Myles have three boys aged eight, five and two-years-old. While her three lively boys and her work at WholeFamily, keep her quite busy, in her spare time (if she ever has any!) she is an avid reader who also enjoys creative writing, exercising and swimming.

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