Why is using exercise as a punishment ineffective? What's wrong with having kids run laps, or do some push-ups? There are frequent news stories about childhood obesity, so why don’t we recommend using exercise as a way to address acting-out behavior?
Let’s talk for a moment about the difference between consequences and punishment. As James Lehman says “You can’t punish kids into doing acceptable behavior. Consequences are a preferred response to inappropriate behavior because they establish a sense of right and wrong.” In other words, punishment is designed to make a kid “hurt” in the hopes that they will remember that hurt and hopefully not do it again. Consequences, on the other hand, are designed to help a child learn from their wrongdoing, and to see what he or she can do differently the next time a similar situation comes up.
Using exercise as a response to child behavior problems is more of a punishment, as it generally pushes a child to the point of exhaustion or, at the very least, soreness, in the hopes that the child will remember that physical strain and not do things like lie or refuse to do chores next time. The trouble with this is that the child is not learning what is intended. Let's say your child curses at you and you decide to have him run laps. To paraphrase James, this is ultimately ineffective because your child is learning how to run miles rather than what he can do instead of cursing at you next time he feels frustrated. (For more information about how to help your child learn better behavior through more effective consequences, check out our Consequences section on EP.)
The other issue with using exercise to address child misbehavior is that it can be dangerous. There have been stories in the news recently about parents, coaches and schools using things like running, push-ups or other exercises to address behaviors like tardiness, lying or general disrespect in children. These types of punishments can have a wide range of physical effects, such as asthma attacks, dehydration, joint problems, heat exhaustion, seizures — or even death.
Another long-term effect of these types of punishments is that your child will grow to hate exercise. While this is not as immediate or shocking as the possible short-term effects are, aversion to exercise can be harmful to your child’s overall health as it is generally accepted that moderate daily physical activity is a healthful habit to adopt, and can actually be a good coping mechanism to help handle stress and frustration.
Now, don't get me wrong — there’s nothing wrong with taking a walk or encouraging your child to go outside and play basketball to help calm down. But using exercise as the main way to address your child’s acting-out behavior is unlikely to get you the results you're looking for in the long run — and might have some unforeseen side effects.