Category: Adopted Child Abuse
Article "Punitive Damages" By Author Alfie Kohn
Written About Why Child Punishment Fails.
The argument I’ve been making is largely a practical one. By any meaningful criteria, punishment simply doesn’t work very well, and it’s not realistic to expect that more punishment (or a different kind) will turn things around. But how are we to respond to parents who contend that explaining, reasoning, empathizing, and so on can’t have more than a limited impact, so we need to “put some teeth into” what we’re telling kids and “get their attention” by imposing a consequence, too?
To begin with, notice that this claim is based on the assumption that without the addition of some coercive enforcement mechanism children will ignore the most important people in their world. That’s a hard case to make. Sure, kids sometimes ignore specific things we tell them, demonstrating a remarkable case of selective hearing when we call them to dinner or ask them to clean up, but that doesn’t mean they’re oblivious to our words and actions. On the contrary, even the words of the gentlest parent – or perhaps I should say especially of the gentlest parent – carry enormous clout just because of who’s saying them.
Still, could someone argue that threats and punishments command children’s attention in a different way? Yes, but the way they do so is terribly counterproductive. The very features of punishment that make it impossible to ignore also make it almost impossible for any good to come out of it. What’s getting the kids’ attention here is pain, along with the fact that someone on whom they’re dependent has caused that pain. This is hardly likely to produce the effect that most of us are looking for. In fact, the effect of punishment is such that it can underminethe benefits of good parenting if the two approaches are combined.
Some parents rationalize the use of punishment by insisting that they really, truly love their kids. No doubt this is true. But it creates a deeply confusing situation for children. It’s hard for them to sort out why someone who clearly cares for them also makes them suffer from time to time. It creates the warped idea, which children may carry with them throughout their lives, that causing people pain is part of what it means to love them. Or else it may simply teach that love is necessarily conditional, that it lasts only for as long as people do exactly what you want.
Another rationalization is that punishment isn’t destructive as long as it’s imposed for a good reason and as long as that reason is explained to the child. The truth is that explanation doesn’t minimize the bad effects of punishment so much as punishment minimizes the good effects of explanation. Suppose you explain things to your child and try to help her focus on how her actions have made someone else feel. You say: “Annie, when you grabbed the Legos away from Jeffrey, you made him sad because now he can’t play with them.” But what if you’re also in the habit of punishing her for certain offenses? The benefits of your explanation may well be wiped out. If Annie knows from experience that you might send her to the time-out chair or do something else unpleasant to her, she’s not thinking about Jeffrey. She’s just worried about what this will mean for her. The more anxious she’s learned to become about the possibility of punishment, the less chance that meaningful moral learning will take place.
If you combine everything in this chapter with the discussion in chapter 2, then a larger pattern begins to emerge. What I’ve described as a “doing to” approach, which encompasses conditional parenting, actually exists on a continuum, with “harsh corporal punishment” on one side, then “milder spankings,” then “other punishments,” then “tangible rewards,” and finally, on the other end, “verbal rewards.” I don’t mean to say that hitting your child and saying “Good job!” are morally equivalent. But they are conceptually connected. My concern is with all of these techniques as well as with the assumptions that link them. In my experience, many parents [and teachers] are less likely to explore the “working with” alternative as long as they think it’s enough just to pick one of the “doing to” options on the right side of this diagram. That’s why I’ve been spending so much time emphasizing how important it is to reject the whole model.
In effect, I’ve also been challenging a view that might be called “the more, the merrier.” This is the tendency to dismiss arguments that any specific parenting practice is bad news and ought to be replaced by another. “Why not do both?” some people ask. “No reason to throw anything out of your toolbox. Use everything that works.”
To begin with, we should respond once again: “Works to do what – and at what cost?” But the real problem is that different strategies sometimes work at cross purposes. One may wipe out the positive effects of the other. You may recall the bit of folk wisdom, confirmed by generations of farmers and grocers, warning that a rotten apple placed in a barrel full of good apples can spoil them. It would be pushing things to postulate a kind of psychological ethylene released by traditional discipline, analogous to the gas given off by bad fruit. But it does seem that the quest for optimal results may require us to abandon certain practices rather than simply piling other, better practices on top of them. We have to eliminate the bad stuff, like punishment and rewards, in order for the good stuff to work.
(Please see Unconditional Parenting for the complete citations)
1. In some cases, children – and, even more commonly, adults – may be punished without regard to whether the intervention is effective. The point may be not to change future behavior but to exact retribution. This evidently motivates some teachers to punish their students (Reyna and Weiner); it’s unclear how many parents resort to punishment with the goal of changing how their children act and how many see punishment as a moral imperative.
2. Sears et al., p. 484.
3. Toner, p. 31. Likewise, “punitive discipline emerged as a common or shared predictor of all the dimensions of child disruptive behaviors,” reported the multi-university Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group in 2000 (Stormshak et al.; quotation on p. 24). And from another study, conducted in the Midwest: Punishment of various sorts “contributed more unique variance to predicting problem-behavior ratings than all demographic predictors combined” (Brenner and Fox; quotation on p. 253.) Of course, the discovery that punishment is associated with children’s misbehavior could be explained by the possibility that parents with tough kids are more likely to punish them; in other words, punishment may be “pulled” by the child’s actions rather than causing those actions. Undoubtedly it’s true that the causal arrows point in more than one direction, but by now there’s enough evidence, from studies designed specifically to test this hypothesis, to justify the conclusion that punishment is a cause more than an effect. For example, see Hoffman 1960, p. 141; Kandel and Wu, p. 112; Cohen and Brook, p. 162; and, for the causative role played by corporal punishment in particular, Straus 2001, chap. 12. Similarly, while parents may respond more harshly to a toddler who is unusually aggressive, that response is driven in large part by the parent’s pre-existing attitudes about child rearing (Hastings and Rubin; see also Grusec and Mammone).
4. At this writing, the most ambitious summary of the existing research on corporal punishment is a monograph published by Gershoff in 2002. Of the studies she reviewed that looked at the effects on short-term compliance, three found a positive effect and two did not (p. 547). (Even those three didn’t prove that corporal punishment was more effective than other methods.) More important, her metaanalysis of a whopping 88 studies discovered that corporal punishment by parents is associated with “decreased moral internalization, increased child aggression, increased child delinquent and antisocial behavior, decreased quality of relationship between parent and child, decreased child mental health, increased risk of being a victim of physical abuse, increased adult aggression, increased adult criminal and antisocial behavior, decreased adult mental health, and increased risk of abusing own child or spouse” (p. 544). Also see the work of Murray Straus.
5. McCord 1991, pp. 175-6.
6. I offer a critique of some of the “New Discipline” programs, including “Discipline with Dignity,” “Cooperative Discipline,” “Discipline with Love and Logic,” and the recommendations offered by Rudolf Dreikurs and his followers, in my 1996 book for teachers, Beyond Discipline. See especially chapter 4: “Punishment Lite: ‘Consequences’ and Pseudochoice.”
7. Pieper and Pieper, p. 208. This is not to say that there is no such thing as a true natural consequence. If we stay up late, we’ll likely be tired in the morning. If we don’t go shopping, we’ll eventually run out of food. But these scenarios are very different from, say, a parent’s refusal to heat up dinner for a child who comes home late. Call that whatever you like: It’s still a punishment, and one that feels particularly humiliating, at that. (An accompanying “I told you so” or “It serves you right” or “I hope you’ve learned your lesson” will only serve to make the child feel even worse.)
8. Hoffman 1960. Needless to say, this is hard to do. Research (e.g., Ritchie) confirms that parents are more likely to respond punitively during a conflict in which they and their children are locked in a battle of wills than after a single act of noncompliance.
9. Ginott, p. 151.
10. Hoffman 1970a, p. 114.
11. Gordon 1989, pp. 74, 7.
12. Hoffman and Saltzstein, p. 54.
13. For evidence that this is true of love withdrawal, see Hoffman 1970a, pp. 109, 115.
14. For example, see Hoffman 1970a, p. 109. Straus 2001 (p. 101) makes the additional point that parents who spank but explain why they’re doing so are “teaching the child just what to do and what to say when he or she hits another child.”
15. This same phenomenon shows up in schools with regard to better and worse forms of teaching, as I argued in an article called “Education’s Rotten Apples” (Kohn 2002).
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