Punishment as a teaching tool

“Punishment has a very high risk of destroying not only the desire, but also the ability to learn.”
– Jan Fortune


From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 25, 1998

One of the many irrational and so called common-sense aspects of conventional parenting is the notion that punishment is an effective teaching tool. This is so obviously inimical to non-coercive parenting that we could simply dismiss it out of hand, but as with so many of the norms of conventional parenting, we can also find ourselves needing to confront the view, as I did in a long and rather convoluted correspondence recently.

The system of rewards and punishments that is so integral to conventional parenting is often justified by reference to a certain fantasy: the fantasy of a consensual contract, or agreement, between parent and child—rather like the fictitious ‘Social Contract’ on which some political thinkers have based their justifications for government intervention in citizens’ lives. As part of this ‘contract’, to which the children’s consent is assumed or extracted, the children have to live by a set of rules which are in fact arbitrary, but which are given the status of a rational system in which everything from emotional to physical violence is legitimised as being ‘for the good’ of the family unit and individual child’s moral survival.

The war cry of this imposed contract with its illogical and often convoluted set of rules is the elusive standard of ‘unacceptable behaviour’. This is a necessarily slippery concept which enables parents to deny that they administer punishments for disobedience of commands or rules, but instead focus positively on the behaviour pattern behind the incident. The real effect is to give the whole system an arbitrariness which is even more likely than an overtly command-based system to keep the control firmly in the parents’ hands. It also ensures that what is actually being punished, at the child’s expense, stems directly from a whole baggage of irrational and damaged thinking arising from the parents’ own history of being punished and coerced.

‘Unacceptable behaviour’ generally applies only to children, but can carry over into coercion between the parents or even be systematised between the parents and children so that parents ‘suffer’ punishment. This merely serves to create another false layer of so-called ‘fairness’ because the system ultimately belongs only to the parents and feeds on their damaged thinking.

Because it is impossible to define ‘unacceptable behaviour’ accurately, the lines between a descriptive account of an actual incident and the element of so called unacceptability can be very blurred. For example a child may accidentally break an item in an exploration of the properties of that item, or by wanting to play with it in a particular way. The punishing parent maintains that the resulting punishment is not because of an accident but because advice about the properties of the item and its possible breaking point was not heeded, therefore placing the child in the arbitrary realm of unacceptable behaviour.

Another example is that of a child who breaks something deliberately. This coerced child may have all sorts of anger at previous injustices and be subject to much irrationality in his/her life, but the focus of the punishing parent is in fact not on the context, but only narrowly on the incident. In this way it is likely that the child will not be able to give a sufficient account to rebut the charge of ‘unacceptable behaviour’ and might very well be unable to offer any ‘reason’ for the specific incident, again leaving the child in that arbitrary realm that s/he has supposedly contracted into.

It is quite likely that if any of us were being interrogated in a household where punishment is used we would feel as confused as the average four year old, and would in any case know better than to trust the intentions of an interrogator who has previously and systematically hurt and confused us. Unfortunately for children in such households their confusion and lack of answers is taken not as a sign that the parent has done some damage that needs to be apologised for, but rather as a sign of guilt, and of a lack of capacity for reason, which in turn justify the continuation of the regime.

Of course the parents who are themselves so anxious about ‘acceptable behaviour’ believe that the world is a place where their children will only function successfully if they are fully initiated into (what they believe is) society’s system of rewards and punishments. They will argue that everyone has to adhere to rules and regulations whether they want to or not; that adults who do not to conform to society’s rules are punished and that therefore they are simply, and with the best intentions, preparing their children for the real world.

Such a justification is yet another cover story for the real narrative, which is actually about inflicting the pain and damage of the parents on the children through a lack of creativity and an abundance of coercion-induced irrationality. Our children do not ever need to take on this tragic view of life and the world. With non-coercive parenting they can instead approach life with creativity and flexibility; seeing life as being about finding better ways and new knowledge instead of staying within boundaries that are often harmful and sometimes totally imagined.

It is indeed the case that we are all subject to the law and that to get by in society we will need to develop ways of interacting that work, at least with those people with whom we want to associate. But that is a world away from the Byzantine prescriptions than punishing parents subject their children to when they make the enormous logical leap from ‘unacceptable behaviour’ to adult law-breaking.

A related and equally specious argument is that children who are not ‘disciplined’ will be more likely to become ‘criminal’ and, in this context, their childhood behaviour is criminalised within the home. However the analogies do not hold up. For example, in the adult world adults treat their own property as they think best—if I push some piece of equipment to its limit either inadvertently or by taking a risk with it and it breaks, then that is that—I may not have money for another one, but no rule or law is broken. Yet in a punishing household a child is punished for such behaviour to prevent him or her growing up with criminal disregard for property. In this way, much more stringent criteria are placed on very young children in the misplaced desire to produce ‘decent’ adults.

Of course we should tell our children about laws—real laws, that is. For example we may tell our children that in the car the law requires seat belts and that our own ideas on safety also mean we feel it best they be worn. If they know we are not forcing them to do something or lying to them they are likely to wear seat belts. Growing up law-abiding and socially functional does not require either punishment or coercion—it requires understanding all the choices and being allowed to take them. It involves self control, not imposed discipline based on spurious fears and irrational thinking.

Within the various stands of conventional parenting a wide range of punishments exist, many of which are seen as lenient or even liberal, but all of which are simply damaging. As part of the mechanism for legitimising the system of punishments there is often a theme of ‘fitting the punishment to the crime’. For example a child destroys part of a game and is banned from using toys for a certain length of time. However, the idea that the second of these events ‘fits’ the first is just another arbitrary rule: little more than a sort of primitive ‘sympathetic magic’. Because of the arbitrary nature of such punishment systems, further arbitrary definitions of ‘toys’ and ‘play’ must be brought in, so that things which are seen as having an ‘educational’ value rather than a ‘play’ value may be excluded from the ban.

Thus the whole system of punishment spills over into other areas of thinking to create problems there. The child can read books, but cannot indulge in fantasy play with swords that week; s/he can play a computer addition or spelling game, but not a shooting aliens game; she can watch schools’ TV programmes, but not his/her favourite Disney video. So the child begins to become prey to all sorts of dangerous misconceptions and hang-ups, for example s/he starts to make an association between so called ‘educational toys’ and punishment.

These hang-ups need not be immediately obvious. The child will catch on to the fact that certain items and certain types of play and learning are given more value and approval by the parents and may therefore switch their own attention to these favoured ‘educational’ items in a craving for approval and as a means of alleviating the stresses of a coercive existence. However, over time the association between punishment and ‘educational’ items will worsen along with the resulting thinking difficulties so that even former favourites such as story books take on a negative aspect in the child’s mind and are thought about much less creatively because of all the coercion that surrounds their use. The genuine fun inevitably becomes tarnished by the limits imposed on the child’s play through punishment. Punishment has a very high risk of destroying not only the desire, but also the ability to learn. Coercion destroys creativity and the ability to create new knowledge. Allpunishment seriously harms learning.

Punishment also undermines a child’s belief in his/her own trustworthiness and totally undermines his/her notions that s/he has control even over her/his own possessions. The dictate of ‘acceptable behaviour’ does not allow for anything to truly belong to a child because it is behaviour and not nominal ownership which dictates whether a toy is actually theirs to play with in their way. In a punishing household, gifts come with very mixed messages; parents not only give information on the toy, including what might break it (which in itself can be fine) but will also punish the child if the information is not used in the way the parents would want (even though the information is often given in the guise of advice rather than direction). And even when an item is used as directed, if the child likes it there is the ever-present danger that it may be taken away again, either as a punishment, or because the parents fear that the child is ‘spending too much time’ with the item, or has become ‘addicted’ to it—the list of reasons for the child to be insecure is endless. The parents’ need to control children’s possessions and the patent lack of trust given to children are further indications of the parents’ own coercion damage and thinking difficulties. The punishing adults are people who experienced little control or trust in their own childhoods and now have a craving for control that spills well beyond the bounds of controlling their own possessions and actions.

Those who administer punishment usually express the opinion that they have no alternatives in the face of ‘unacceptable behaviour’ and this is further rationalised by labelling children as ‘careless’, ‘destructive’ or even ‘malicious’. However the ‘no choice’ argument is specious; there are always other alternatives.

For example if little Sam was playing with something in a way likely to cause damage without realising it I would share my ideas about how delicate the toy is and how he or others would feel if it were broken. If it were subsequently broken by the same style of playing or handling, I would explain why it had happened and comfort Sam if he was distressed at the breakage. I would assume that Sam had gone on playing in a particular way likely to lead to the break because:

  • He is very young and tends to forget about how delicate things are or to be curious about how far he can push them (not maliciously!)
  • He had good reason from past play to expect the toy could stand up to this treatment
  • He hadn’t listened to my advice because he was upset about something—the way I communicated or something totally unrelated.
  • that it was his toy anyway and therefore his decision whether or not to take my advice.

I would talk about what we could do now—could the toy still be played with? Could we save for another one? (If it belonged to other children I would involve them in this.) If the toy had been destroyed deliberately I would assume that Sam was extremely distressed and do what I could to put this right—working with him to remove the source of anger or sadness. (I would also remind myself that sometimes what looks like destruction is actually experimentation and curiosity.)

Punishing parents will also convince themselves that their children accept punishment and are not distressed by it because they understand that they have transgressed, deserve punishment and are being punished ‘for their own good’. Not showing distress is an indication of children having learnt to repress emotions that will cause them further trouble; of children having made themselves believe that they are loved despite being hurt; of children who already have such damaged thinking that they do not voice their hurt. Not showing distress in not an indication that no harm is taking place.

‘Unacceptable behaviour’ (another euphemism is ‘challenging behaviour’) is not a child ‘asking’ to be punished or ‘wanting’ to be taught a lesson, but a distress signal that should sharpen our desire to eliminate all coercion from children’s lives. Punishment merely compounds the distress and harm. Real fairness is not living under an imposed contract in which children are set up to fail in relation an elusive and arbitrary standard of what is deemed acceptable. Fairness is being taken seriously and punishment can have no part of this.

See also:

Jan Fortune, 1998, ‘Punishment as a teaching tool’, Taking Children Seriously 25, ISSN 1351-5381, pp. 7-10, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/punishment-as-a-teaching-tool

1 thought on “Punishment as a teaching tool”

  1. This article has some valuable insights, which may be appreciated by other caregivers like me who advocate for non-coercive or gentle parenting approaches. The potential harms of punishment are often overlooked, not least making open and honest communication within families impossible. Effective communication is key to understanding a child’s needs and feelings and can foster a stronger parent-child relationship. When kids know they face punishment there is no feeling of safety for them to be open in their communication. Using arbitrary rules and punishing also negatively impact a child’s understanding of why certain behaviors are unwise. I also like the respect for the child’s autonomy and choices. This can empower children to make decisions and learn from their experiences in a way they can’t when their caregivers are not respecting their autonomy. Acknowledging and validating a child’s emotions can contribute to the development of emotional intelligence and a healthy emotional well-being. The article’s emphasis on the importance of self-regulation and problem-solving skills vs imposed authority is thought provoking, showing how respecting kids’ autonomy can lead to more responsible decision-making. As a gentle parent I try to understand and empathize with kids, considering the underlying reasons for behavior rather than focusing on correction. The principles expressed align with my values as a parent who seeks to raise emotionally intelligent, self-regulated, and independent children in a nurturing and respectful environment.


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