Cipani, E. (2004). Punishment on trial: A resource guide to child discipline. Reno, NV: Context Press.

Reviewed by
Audrey Meissner, MEd, BCBA (Executive Director, New Haven Learning Centre)
David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D (President, Association for Science in Autism Treatment)

Punishment on TrialPromoting enduring behavior change in children is a complex undertaking, one that is facilitated through the use of a full array of consequences. The aptly titled book, Punishment on Trial: A Resource Guide to Child Discipline, provides a comprehensive review of the myriad issues and considerations parents and professionals face when deciding if and how to use punishment. Dr. Cipani, a frequent author and leader in the field of child behavior therapy, has once again provided his readers with a readable, thought-provoking resource to guide them in the arena of child discipline. He is to be applauded for tackling such a controversial topic in a responsible and thorough manner.

This consumer-friendly book is divided into four sections. The first section outlines the downfalls of using a procedural definition of punishment and highlights the effectiveness of modifying child behavior by adopting an outcome-oriented definition of punishment. This emphasis on reducing challenging behavior using an outcome-oriented definition is well articulated and reinforced across the four sections of the book. The second and most lengthy section of the book exposes and debunks the many myths that surround it. The third section delineates six basic principles of punishment derived from experimental and applied research studies that parents and professionals should incorporate when using punishment procedures. The fourth and final section provides a framework for the responsible use of punishment, offering eight questions to ask when planning to use and implement punishment procedures.

Despite the plethora of literature on punishment, Cipani states that not only is punishment a controversial topic, but it is often mis-understood. This is clearly illustrated in Section I, where the author answers the question, “What is punishment?” by highlighting the difference between a procedural definition of punishment versus an outcome-oriented definition of punishment. Specifically, the procedural definition of punishment evaluates the effectiveness of punishment by looking only at the consequence used. On the other hand, the outcome-oriented definition of punishment considers the punisher’s effect on child behavior when evaluating effectiveness.

Dr. Cipani advocates for using the outcome-oriented definition of punishment when treating problem behavior for several reasons. First, when the procedural definition is used and the aversive consequence fails to decrease maladaptive behavior, punishment is deemed to be ineffective. For instance, if a parent uses a procedural definition when implementing a punishment procedure and the aversive consequence used fails to reduce problem behavior, a parent may conclude that punishment isn’t effective for this child, or worse, that the child is “beyond help.” Second, whereby concluding that punishment was ineffective, a parent’s solution is often to increase the intensity or duration of the punishing event, which unintentionally increases the risk of harm to the child.

On the other hand, the outcome-oriented definition of punishment helps parents analyze their own discipline procedures by focusing on child behavior when evaluating effectiveness, clearly making it the better option. Specifically, when a parent adopts an outcome-oriented view of punishment, if a specific aversive stimulus fails to reduce problem behavior, the parent can conclude that it was the “punisher” that wasn’t effective, not the fact that the child is “beyond help.” Importantly, this definition avoids judging the harshness of the consequence. Instead, punishment does not have to evoke pain – it only has to decrease behavior. The focus is on decreasing behavior, not on punishing the child. Many readers will easily see that the concepts resonate to the use of reinforcement and appreciate that the considerations outlined in this section, in particular the distinction between procedural and outcome-oriented definitions, readily apply to behavior-strengthening procedures as well.

Myths and misinformation that separate children from effective and timely intervention represent a very serious matter in the field of mental health. These myths can be easily tied to misuse, ineffective use, and outright avoidance of punishment procedures. The second section of the book exposes and debunks the myths surrounding the use of punishment and exemplifies the theme of the book, punishment on trial. In Section II, five myths are discussed in great detail:

  1. Punishment does not work;
  2. Punishment temporarily suppresses behavior;
  3. Punishment causes problems for a child’s emotional development;
  4. Punishment is not as effective as reinforcement; and
  5. Time-out does not work.

For those of us who have been in the field for a number of years, these myths are neither new nor inconsequential. Throughout the section, Dr. Cipani reminds parents and professionals alike to ‘weigh the evidence’ when confronted with statements about punishment in order to separate fact from opinion, as the field is replete with much misinformation about punishment. More specifically, parents and professionals are advised to consider statements that are based on scientific research and question those based on opinion. The author further asserts that the relative lack of research in the area of punishment

leads to speculation, and speculation over time leads to the creation and propagation of myths. Dr. Cipani effectively, and at times comically, exposes these myths to undo the harmful effect they have had on the responsible use of punishment in situations where it is warranted.

The third section describes six basic principles of punishment derived from research studies that parents and professionals should follow when using punishment procedures. The six principles include:

  1. There must exist a behavioral contingency;
  2. Be consistent;
  3. The “even swap” rule;
  4. Remove competing consequences;
  5. Be specific; and
  6. Prove it works.

In this section, the author makes great use of research-based examples to illustrate the importance and relevance of each principle. There are a few particularly salient points that are worthy of mention. In keeping with the consumer-friendly style of the book, the author clarifies the importance of the principle of consistency by stating, “When the subject performs the target behavior, the consequence must be inevitable.” “Inevitability” of the consequence is such a powerful way of framing a behavioral contingency and may serve many readers well in how they approach consistency and immediacy. To ensure that parents and professionals also focus on increasing desired behavior, principle #3 outlines the “even swap” rule. Specifically, Cipani maintains that when using punishment to decrease undesired behavior, reinforcement must also be used to increase desired behavior. Finally, the inclusion of the final principle is paramount. In an era when countless children are involved in long-standing, ineffective interventions, an appeal to objective determination of efficacy cannot be overstated.

The final section can be used as a guideline to follow to ensure that punishment is being used responsibly. Cipani highlights eight questions to ask oneself when planning to use and implement punishment:

  1. Am I willing to solve one problem behavior at a time?;
  2. Am I willing to deploy that consequence consistently?;
  3. Am I willing to sit down and think through a plan before putting anything into action?;
  4. Am I willing to complement punishment with reinforcement?;
  5. Am I willing to specify precisely the punishing consequence for the target behavior?;
  6. Am I willing to evaluate the punisher‘s effectiveness on the target behavior:
  7. Am I willing to persist long enough?; and,
  8. Am I willing to be open to revising the plan when it is ineffective?

Dr. Cipani challenges readers to consider that a child‘s ability to accept consequences for one’s behavior in part determines a child’s adaptability to the social environment. Cipani further states that as children get older, naturally occurring, real-world consequences become more unpleasant; therefore, teaching children how to accept unpleasant consequences is an essential part of growing up. The strengths of this book lie in the excellent use of research studies as well as case studies to further illustrate the important considerations that surround punishment. The case studies reflect a helpful mix of clinical and non-clinical examples across an array of settings. Readers will easily see their own children mirrored in many of the examples. Dr. Cipani skillfully blends vivid examples and references to published research in a manner that will satisfy professional and savvy consumers, yet not overwhelm a parent who may be picking up a book of this sort for the first time. Striking that balance can be a daunting task, yet the author has succeeded in meeting the needs of diverse readers.

There are two minor criticisms that are worthy of mention. As two individuals who specialize in the treatment of autism, we feel that any book that addresses challenging behaviors should educate its readers about underlying motivation of behavior and the relevance of functional assessment. Secondly, this important resource could have been strengthened with a bit more discussion of the essential similarities and differences between positive and negative punishment procedures.

The verdict is in. Punishment on Trial: A Resource Guide to Child Discipline is written in a consumer-friendly manner where the sections follow a coherent sequence to provide ease of reading. Anyone interested in better understanding punishment procedures will benefit from this book. The field has benefited by such a responsible and thorough analysis of a facet of child discipline that has been sadly neglected and all too often misunderstood.

Citation for this article:

Meissner, A., & Celiberti, D. (2010). Book review: Punishment on trial. [Review of the book Punishment on Trial,by, E. Cipani]. Science in Autism Treatment, 7(4), 20-21.

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