Punishment Versus Discipline

A child can be expected to behave well only if his parents live by the values they teach.
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Children need models more than they need critics.

—Joseph Joubert, Penstes, 1842

MANY PARENTS WONDER WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO teach their children discipline. But the majority of those who have asked my opinions on discipline have spoken of it as something that parents impose on children, rather than something that parents instill in them. What they really seem to have in mind is punishment—in particular, physical punishment.

Unfortunately, punishment teaches a child that those who have power can force others to do their will. And when the child is old enough and able, he will try to use such force himself—for instance, punishing his parents by acting in ways most distressing to them. Thus parents would be well advised to keep in mind Shakespeare's words: "They that have power to hurt and will do none .... They rightly do inherit heaven's graces." Among those graces is being loved and emulated by one's children.

Any punishment sets us against the person who inflicts it on us. We must remember that injured feelings can be much more lastingly hurtful than physical pain.

A once common example of both physical and emotional punishment is washing out a child's mouth with soap because the child has used bad language. While the procedure is only uncomfortable, rather than painful, the degradation the child experiences is great. Without consciously knowing it the child responds not only to the obvious message that he said something bad but also to the implicit message that the parent views his insides as dirty and bad—that the child himself is vile. In the end the parent's goal—to eliminate bad language from the child's vocabulary—is rarely achieved. Instead, the punishment serves to convince the child that although the parent is very much concerned with overt behavior, he is completely uninterested in whatever annoyance compelled the child to use bad language. It convinces him that the parent is interested only in what he wants, and not in what the child wants. If this is so, the child in his inner being reasons, then why shouldn't he too be interested only in what he wants, and ignore the wishes of his parent?

I have known children who, upon having their mouths washed out with soap, stopped saying bad words out loud but continually repeated the words to themselves, responding to even the slightest frustration with streams of silent vituperation. Their anger made them unable to form any good relationships, which made them angrier still, which made them think up worse swear words.

Even if a child feels he has done wrong, he senses that there must be some better way to correct him than by inflicting physical or emotional pain. When we experience painful or degrading punishment, most of us learn to avoid situations that lead to it; in this respect punishment is effective. However, punishment teaches foremost the desirability of not getting caught, so the child who before punishment was open in his actions now learns to hide them and becomes devious. The more hurtful the punishment, the more devious the child will become.

Like the criminal who tries to get a more lenient sentence by asserting that he knows he has done wrong, our children learn to express remorse when we expect them to. Usually they are sorry only that they have been found out and may be punished. Thus we should not be fooled when they tell us that they know they did wrong, and we certainly should not extract such an admission from them, since it is essentially worthless—made to pacify us or to get the reckoning over with.

It is much better to tell a child that we are sure that if he had known he was doing wrong he would not have done so. This is nearly always the case. The child may have thought, "If my father finds out, he will be angry," but this is very different from believing that what one is doing is wrong. At any moment a child believes that whatever he is doing is fully justified. If he takes a forbidden cookie, to his mind the intensity of his desire justifies the act. Later, parental criticism or punishment may convince him that the price he has to pay for his act is too high. But this is a realization after the event.

When we tell a child that we disapprove of what he has done but are convinced that his intentions were good, our positive approach will make it relatively easy for him to listen to us and not close his mind in defense against what we have to say. And while he still might not like our objecting, he will covet our good opinion of him enough to want to retain it, even if that entails a sacrifice.

Although we may be annoyed when our children do wrong, we ought to remember Freud's observation that the voice of reason, though soft, is insistent. Shouting will not help us. It may shock a child into doing our will, but he knows and we know that it is not the voice of reason. Our task is to create situations in which reason can be heard. If we become emotional, as we are apt to do when we are upset about our child's undisciplined behavior and anxious about what it may foretell about his future, then we are not likely to speak with this soft voice of reason. And when the child is upset by fear of our displeasure, not to mention when he is anxious about what we may do to him, then he is in no position to listen well, if at all, to this soft voice.

Even the kindest and most well-intentioned parent will sometimes become exasperated. The difference between the good and the not-so-good parent in such situations is that the good parent will realize that his exasperation probably has more to do with himself than with what the child did, and that showing his exasperation will not be to anyone's advantage. The good parent makes an effort to let his passions cool. The not-so-good parent, in contrast, believes that his exasperation was caused only by his child and that therefore he has every right to act on it.

The fundamental issue is not punishment at all but the development of morality—that is, the creation of conditions that not only allow but strongly induce a child to wish to be a moral, disciplined person. If we succeed in attaining this goal, then there will be no occasion to think of punishment. But even setting aside the goal of inspiring ethical behavior, punishing one's child is, I believe, undesirable in every respect but one: it allows the discharge of parental anger and aggression.

There is little question that when a child has seriously misbehaved, a reasonable punishment may clear the air. By acting on his annoyance and anxiety, the parent finds relief; freed of these upsetting emotions, he may feel somewhat bad about having punished the child, maybe even a bit guilty about having done so, but much more positive about his child. The child, for his part, no longer feels guilty about what he has done. In the eyes of the parent he has paid the penalty; in his own eyes, usually, he has more than paid it.

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