Punishment Versus Discipline

A child can be expected to behave well only if his parents live by the values they teach.

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.

In this manner parent and child, freed of emotions that bothered them and stood between them, can feel that peace has been restored to each of them and between them. But is this the best way to attain the long-range goal: to help the child become a person who acts ethically? Does the experience of having a parent who acts self-righteously or violently produce in the child the wish to act ethically on his own? Does that experience increase the child's respect for and trust in his parent? Would it not have been better, from the standpoint of deterrence and moral growth, if the child had had to struggle longer with his guilt? Isn't guilt—the pangs of conscience—a much better and more lasting deterrent than the fear of punishment? Acting in line with the urgings of one's conscience surely makes for a more responsible and sturdy personality than acting out of fear.

Punishment is a traumatic experience not only in itself but also because it disappoints the child's wish to believe in the benevolence of the parent, on which his sense of security rests. Therefore, as is true for many traumatic experiences, punishment can be subject to repression.

A good case can be made that adults who remember childhood punishments as positive experiences do so because the negative aspects were so severe that they had to be completely repressed or denied. When the punished child reaches adulthood, he remembers only the relief that came with the re-establishment of positive feelings—with the reconciliation that followed the punishment. But this does not mean that at the time the punishment was inflicted it was not detrimental. As far as I know, no child claims right after being punished that it did him a lot of good.

PROBABLY NONE OF THE COMMON TRANSGRESSIONS OF childhood upsets parents more than stealing. What disturbs them most is usually not the thefts themselves—bad as they are. It is the idea that their children may grow up to be thieves. But a child has no intention of becoming a criminal when he takes some small item, and he can be deeply hurt when his parents react as if he might become one. The child nearly always knows that he has done wrong, and if his parents are dissatisfied with him, he understands, but if they are anxious about him, his self-esteem is shaken. We ought not to view what the child has done as a crime. According to law, a child cannot commit a crime. So why should we be more severe with our child than the law would be?

I am not saying that parents should disregard what their child does. The reactions of a child's parents strongly influence the formation of that child's personality. Any transgression that parents consider serious requires an appropriate response, so that the child can learn. If a child's error remains unrecognized, or is made light of, he is likely to feel encouraged to repeat what he has done, maybe even on a larger scale. (This is why it is important for parents to be aware of what their child is doing—what he's been up to when, say, he acquires a new possession of unknown origin.) But though parents should take seriously what their child does, they should not make more of it than the child can comprehend as justified.

Clearly, a child must not be permitted to enjoy ill-gotten goods. He must immediately restore what he has taken to its rightful owner, with the appropriate apologies. If some damage has been done, the owner must be adequately compensated. Every child can understand the necessity of this, even though he might be afraid to approach the owner.

Having the child see the owner all by himself is usually not the best idea. When we supervise, we can be sure of the manner in which he returns what he has taken. More important, the child can observe directly how embarrassed we are by what he has done. One of the worst experiences a child can have is to realize that he has embarrassed his parents in front of a stranger. If we punish the child in addition to putting him through such an experience, we may considerably weaken the impression we have made. The child's sense of guilt usually centers more on the pain he has caused us than on the misdeed itself. For this reason punishment is a weak deterrent: it makes the offender so angry at those who inflict it that his sense of guilt is diminished.

It may make little difference to parents who fear for their child's future whether the child has stolen from them or from others. Parents tend to lump those two actions together in their minds. But for the child, taking things from a member of the family and taking things from a stranger are entirely different matters. We do him an injustice if we do not discriminate between these two situations. We also hamper our efforts to set things straight in the present and to prevent repetitions in the future.

Most children are occasionally tempted to take some small change from their parents. The reasons are manifold. The child wishes to buy something he longs for; he wishes to find out how observant his parents are, with respect both to their own possessions and to those the child acquires; he wishes to make his parents aware of how desperately he wants something. He may wish to keep up with his friends, or to buy their friendship. He may wish to punish the person from whom he takes something.

Parents ought to be careful not to be satisfied with the idea that their child took something, such as money, simply to indulge himself. In my experience, whenever a child—especially a middle-class child, whose needs are well taken care of—takes something from a relative, the attitude of the child toward that relative is always an important factor. For example, the child may take from a sibling because he thinks that this sibling receives more from his parents than he does. Or perhaps the child thinks that his parents have deprived him unnecessarily, or that they have shortchanged him in some way. In such cases the child thinks that he is merely correcting an unfair situation. Simply asking why the child took from one family member rather than from another may be instructive—revealing, for example, that he was angry at this person, or that the person's negligence tempted him. But parents can elicit such important information only if they remain calm. A child is not likely to be able to discover or reveal his motives when pressed to do so by people who are very angry with him or who think they know what he is going to say.

The deepest concern of most parents is their child and his future development, not their loss, which in most cases is relatively small. But a child has a hard time realizing this unless his parents go out of their way to make it clear, by trying to understand what motivated his action. Only the child's conviction that his parents care a great deal for him—not for his future, but for him right now—will strongly motivate him to preserve their good opinion of him, by striving to do nothing that is wrong in their eyes.

Children tend not to view family possessions the way their parents do. So much that is around the house is free to be used by all family members that children may have a hard time drawing the line. Moreover, if parents play loose with their child's possessions, they ought to expect that the child might be at least tempted to do the same with their possessions.

Because of his dependence on the family, the child often has a keener sense of family—on an intuitive, subconscious level—than do his parents. Being a more primitive person, he experiences things in much more primitive and direct ways. It is his family; it must be his for him to feel secure and to be able to grow up well. If so, is not then everything that is the family's property also his? If he belongs to his parents, and they belong to him, then don't silly objects—silly by comparison with the importance of persons—such as money or other valuables that belong to his parents also belong to him? When all family possessions were really that—possessions of the family, not the private property of individual family members—perhaps the sense of family was stronger and gave each family member more security than people now experience.

We can instill in our children a much deeper feeling of family cohesiveness if we make it clear that—within reason—family property is for everyone's use. This includes relatively small amounts of money or minor valuables, the expenditure or loss of which cannot jeopardize the family's future.

THE ORIGINAL DEFINITION OF THE WORD DISCIPLINE refers to an instruction to be imparted to disciples. When one thinks about this definition, it becomes clear that one cannot impart anything, whether discipline or knowledge, that one does not possess oneself. Also it is obvious that acquiring discipline and being a disciple are intimately related.

Most of us when hearing or using the word disciple are likely to be reminded of the biblical Apostles. Their deepest wish was to emulate Christ. They made him their guide not just because they believed in his teachings but because of their love for him and his love for them. Without such mutual love the Master's teaching and example, convincing though they were, would never have persuaded the disciples to change their lives and beliefs as radically as they did.

The story of Christ's disciples suggests that love and admiration are powerful motives for adopting a person's values and ideas. By the same token, the combination of teaching, example, and mutual love is most potent in preventing one from going against what this admired individual stands for, even when one is tempted to do so. Thus the most reliable method of instilling desirable values and a discipline based on these values into the minds of our children should be obvious.

Probably the only way for an undisciplined person to acquire discipline is through admiring and emulating someone who is disciplined. This process is greatly helped if the disciple believes that even if he is not the favorite of the master, at least he is one of the favorites. Such a belief further motivates the disciple to form himself in the image of the master—to identify with him.

Fortunately, the younger the child, the more he wishes to admire his parents. In fact, he cannot do other than admire them, because he needs to believe in their perfection in order to be able to feel safe himself. And in whose image can the young child form himself but in that of one or both of the parents, or whoever functions in their place? Nobody else is as close and as important to him as they are; nobody else loves him as much or takes such good care of him. It is for these reasons, too, that the child wishes to believe that he is his parents' favorite. Sibling rivalry is caused by the fear that he might not be the favorite, and that one of his siblings is. How acutely a child suffers from sibling rivalry is a clear indication of how great his wish is to be the parents' favorite, and how consuming his fear is that he is not.

It is natural and probably unavoidable for parents sometimes to prefer one of their children to others. Parents sometimes fool themselves into believing that they love all their children equally, but this is rarely the case. At best, a parent will like each of his children very much—most parents do—but he will like each child in different ways, and for different reasons. Most parents love one child more at one time and another more at another time, which is only natural, because children behave differently at various moments in their lives and thus evoke different emotional reactions in their parents. But if a child has reason to feel that he is the favorite some of the time, he is likely to believe that he is the favorite most of the time. In this situation, as in so many others, the wish is father to the thought. All of this works, of course, only if the child is not too often and too severely disappointed by the attitudes of his parents.

As the child grows older, he will cease to admire his parents so single-mindedly. By comparison with the wider circle of people he gets to know as he grows up, his parents will seem deficient in some respects. However, while the child may admire his parents less and question aspects of their behavior, his need to admire them unconditionally is so deeply rooted that it will be powerfully present in his unconscious for a long time—at least until he reaches maturity, if not longer. Thus, fortunately, in most families there is a solid basis for the child's wish to be his parents' disciple—to be able to love and admire them, and to emulate them, if not in all then certainly in some very important respects, and if not in his conscious then certainly in his unconscious mind.

We all know families in which this is not the case—in which the parents do not like their child very much, are disappointed in him, or do not behave so that the child can love and admire them. When a child neither admires his parents nor wishes to emulate them, he will not become disciplined under their influence. How can he, when they are not suitable models?

Such a child often finds some other person to admire, whose favorite he wishes to be, and whom he therefore comes to emulate, acquiring discipline in order to find favor in this person's eyes. The trouble is that the child is likely to seek and find an undisciplined master. An example of this syndrome is the member of a delinquent gang who is so impressed by its delinquent or otherwise asocial leader that he admires and emulates him, with disastrous consequences for the youngster and for society. On some level the youngster may know that he has not chosen well, but his need to attach himself to someone whom he can admire, and who seems to offer acceptance and security in return, is so great that it drowns out the voice of reason. It is on their child's need for such an attachment that parents can and must build in order to promote not just disciplined behavior of the child around particular issues—this is not all that difficult to obtain-but a lasting inner commitment to be, or at least to become, a disciplined person.

It is by no means easy for a child to become disciplined. Often part of the reason is that his parents are not very well disciplined themselves and thus do not provide clear models for their child to follow. Another difficulty is that parents try to teach self-discipline to their child in ways that arouse his resistance rather than his interest. And still another difficulty is that a child responds to his parents most readily—both positively and negatively—when he sees that their emotional involvement is strong. When parents act with little self-discipline, they show their emotions. When they get their emotions under control, they are nearly always again able to act in line with their normal standards of discipline. Rare as it may be for a parent to lose control, those are the times that impress a child most. Disciplined behavior, while pleasing and reassuring to the child and likely to make life good for him in the long run, does not make such a strong impression on him.

For these and many other reasons teaching discipline requires great patience on the part of the teacher. The acquisition of true inner discipline, which will be an important characteristic of one's personality and behavior, requires many years of apprenticeship. The process is so slow that in retrospect it seems unremarkable—as if it were natural and easy. And yet if parents could only remember how undisciplined they themselves once were and how hard a time they had as children in disciplining themselves—if they could remember how put upon, if not abused, they felt when their parents forced them to behave well against their willthen they and their children would be much better off. One of the world's greatest teachers, Goethe, wrote an epigram that turns on this very point: "Tell me how bear you so comfortably / The arrogant conduct of maddening youth? / Had I too not once behaved unbearably, / They would be unbearable in truth." Goethe could write these lines and enjoy their humor because he had achieved great inner security, which made it possible for him to understand with amusement the otherwise "unbearable" behavior of the young. The same feeling of security allowed him to remember how difficult—unbearable, even—he himself had been in his younger years, which many of us are tempted to forget, if our self-love does not compel us to repress or deny it.

Despite all the obstacles that parents encounter in trying to impart discipline to their children, they are the logical persons to do so, because the learning has to start so early and continue for so long. But while most parents are ready to teach their children discipline and know that they are the ones to do so, they are less ready to accept the idea that they can teach only by example. Unfortunately, the maxim "Do as I say, not as I do" won't work with children. Whether they obey our orders or not, deep down they are influenced less by what we tell them than they are by who we are and what we do. Our children form themselves in reaction to us: the more they love us, the more they emulate us, and the more they respond positively to our consciously held values and to those of which we are not conscious but which also influence our actions. The less they like and admire us, the more negatively they respond to us in forming their personalities.

A study conducted in Sweden demonstrates how persuasive the example set by the parents can be to a child. Some years ago the Swedish government became concerned because undisciplined behavior among Swedish teenagers—as indicated by alcoholism, vandalism, delinquency, drug use, and criminal behavior—had become prevalent. To find out why some children became troublesome and others did not, researchers compared the homes of law-abiding teenagers with those of delinquents. They found that neither material assets nor social class exercised a statistically significant influence on the behavior of these young people. Instead, what was decisive was the emotional atmosphere of the home.

Teenagers who behaved well tended to have parents who were themselves responsible, upright, and self-disciplinedwho lived in accord with the values they professed and encouraged their children to follow suit. When the good teenagers were exposed, as part of the investigation, to problem teenagers, their behavior was not permanently affected. They had far too securely internalized their parents' values. While some, out of curiosity, joined the activities of the delinquent or drug-using group, such experimentation was always tentative and short-lived. By the same token, when problem teenagers were forced to associate solely with "square" peers, they showed no significant improvement. Indeed, they did not even temporarily adopt non-delinquent ways of living.

The Swedish researchers found that undisciplined, asocial, problem teenagers did not necessarily come from what one would consider undisciplined or disorganized homes, nor did they have visibly asocial parents. But the parents of the asocial youngsters did tend to have conflicting values or to be inconsistent in putting their values into practice. And they tended to try to hold their children to values that they themselves did not live by. As a result the children had not been able to internalize those values. Expected by their parents to be more disciplined than the examples set, most of the children turned out to be much less so.

Further study of the family backgrounds of these youngsters revealed that it hardly mattered what specific values the parents embraced-whether the parents were conservative or progressive in the views they held, strict or permissive in the ways in which they brought up their children. What made the difference was how closely the parents lived by the values that they tried to teach their children.

A PARENT WHO REspects himself will feel no need to demand or command respect from his child, since he feels no need for the child's respect to buttress his security as a parent or as a person. Secure in himself, he will not feel his authority threatened and will accept it when his child sometimes shows a lack of respect for him, as young children, in particular, are apt to do. The parent's self-respect tells him that such displays arise from immaturity of judgment, which time and experience will eventually correct.

Demanding or commanding respect reveals to the child an insecure parent who lacks the conviction that his way of life will, all by itself, over time, gain him the child's respect. Not trusting that respect will come naturally, this parent has to insist on it right now. Who would wish to form himself in the image of an insecure person, even if that person is his parent? Unfortunately, the child of insecure parents often becomes an insecure person himself, because insecure parents cannot inculcate security in their children or create an environment in which the children can develop a sense of security on their own.

To be disciplined requires self-control. To be controlled by others and to accept living by their rules or orders makes it superfluous to control oneself. When the more important aspects of a child's actions and be are controlled by, say, his parents or teachers, he will see no need to learn to control himself; others do it for him.

How parents in other cultures try to inculcate self-control in their children can be instructive. Consider, for example, a study designed to find out why young Japanese do much better academically than Americans. When the researchers studied maternal behavior they saw clear differences between the Japanese and the Americans. Typically, when young American children ran around in supermarkets, their mothers-often annoyed-told them, "Stop that!" or "I told you not to act this way!" Japanese mothers typically refrained entirely from telling their children what to do. Instead they asked them questions, such as "How do you think it makes the storekeeper feel when you run around like this in his store?" or "How do you think it makes me feel when my child runs around as you do?" Similarly, the American mother, wanting her child to eat what he was supposed to eat, would order the child to do so or tell him that he ought to eat it because it was good for him. The Japanese mother would ask her child a question, such as "How do you think it makes the man who grew these vegetables for you to eat feel when you reject them?" or "How do you think it makes these carrots that grew so that you could eat them feel when you do not eat them?" Thus from a very early age the American child is told what to do, while the Japanese child is encouraged not only to consider other persons' feelings but to control himself on the basis of his own deliberations.

The reason for the higher academic achievement of Japanese youngsters may well be that the Japanese child in situations important to his mother is invited to think things out on his own, a habit that stands him in good stead when he has to master academic material. The American child, in contrast, is expected to conform his decisions and actions to what he is told to do. This expectation certainly does not encourage him to do his own thinking.

The Japanese mother does not just expect her child to be able to arrive at good decisions. She also makes an appeal to her child not to embarrass her. In the traditional Japanese culture losing face is among the worst things that can happen to a person. When a mother asks, "How do you think it makes me—or the storekeeper—feel when you act this way?" she implies that by mending his ways the child does her, or the storekeeper, a very great favor. To be asked to do one's own thinking and to act accordingly, as well as to be told that one is able to do someone a favor, enhances one's self-respect, while to be ordered to do the opposite of what one wants is destructive of it.

WHAT IS A PARENT TO DO IN THE SHORT RUN TO prevent a child from misbehaving, as children are apt to do from time to time? Ideally, letting a child know of our disappointment should be effective and should lead the child to abstain from repeating the wrongdoing in the future. Realistically, even if a child has great love and respect for us, his parents, simply telling him of our disappointment, or showing him how great it is, will not always suffice to remedy the situation.

When our words are not enough, when telling our child to mend his ways is ineffective, then the threat of the withdrawal of our love and affection is the only sound method to impress on him that he had better conform to our request. Subconsciously recognizing how powerful a threat this is, some parents, with the best of intentions, destroy its effectiveness by assuring their children that they love them no matter what. This might well be true, but it does not sound convincing to a child, who knows that he does not love his parents no matter what, such as when they are angry at him; so how can he believe them when he can tell that they are dissatisfied, and maybe even angry at him? Most of us do not really love unconditionally. Therefore any effort to make ourselves look better, to pretend to be more loving than we are, will have the opposite effect from the one we desire. True, our love for our child can be so deep, so firmly anchored in us, that it will withstand even very severe blows. But at the moment when we are seriously disappointed in the child, our love may be at a low point, and if we want the child to change his ways, he might as well know it.

The action to take is to banish the child from our presence. We may send him out of the room or we ourselves may withdraw. Whatever, the parent is clearly indicating, "I am so disappointed in you that I do not wish, or feel unable, to maintain physical closeness with you." Here physical distance stands for emotional distance, and it is a symbol that speaks to the child's conscious and unconscious at the same time. This is why the action is so effective.

Sending the child out of sight permits both parent and child to gain distance from what has happened, to cool off, to reconsider. And that does help. But it is the threat of desertion, as likely as not, that permanently impresses the child. Separation anxiety is probably the earliest and most basic anxiety of man. The infant experiences it when his prime caretaker absents herself from him, an absence that, should it become permanent and the caretaker not be replaced, would indeed lead to the infant's death. Anything that rekindles this anxiety is experienced as a terrible threat. Hence, as long as a child believes, however vaguely, that his very existence is in danger if his prime caretaker deserts him, he will respond to this real, implied, or imagined threat with deep feelings of anxiety. Even when he is old enough to know that his life is not in real danger, he will respond to separation from a parent with severe feelings of dejection, because to some degree he will feel as if he were endangered. The difference is that at an older age the fear is not of physical but of emotional starvation.

If we should have any doubt that physical separation can be an effective expression of our disgust with a child's behavior, we can look to our children themselves to set us straight. The worst that a child can think of when he is disgusted with his parents is that he will run away. He makes such a threat because he is convinced that it is so terrible that it will compel us to mend our ways. Clearly, a child understands very well that when we threaten to distance ourselves from him physically we are threatening to distance ourselves from him emotionally. That threat makes a very deep impression.

We must be honest about our strong emotional reactions to our children's behavior, showing our children how deeply we love them, on the one hand, and, on the other, letting them know when we are disappointed in them, provided we do not become critical or punitive. This is all just part of being ourselves. We need not make any claim to be perfect. But if we strive as best we can to live good lives ourselves, our children, impressed by the merits of living good lives, will one day wish to do the same.