Monday, March 11, 2013

Consequences v. Punishments

Gresham, Oregon.  January 17, 2011.

Saw this article and the short comment I intended to post with it on Facebook grew a bit longer than I’d initially intended, so I am throwing it up here instead…

Discipline Vs Punishment: What Outcome Do We Really Want?:

If a child creates a disturbance, bothers others, does anything for which punishment is considered a deterrent, this is evidence that, at the very least, the adult's goals have no relevance to the child's feeling at the moment. It may indicate that the child bears resentments against controlling adults, or against other people in general. Punishment can only secure conformity to goals which are neither felt nor valued by the child. The order secured by punishment or threat of punishment may satisfy the adult, but it can only teach conformity to the child, and it will almost inevitably produce resentment. Such resentment may be one of the most common and important aspects of growing up in our culture.

This is a decent article and I agree with the defined difference between "discipline" and "punishment."  The article gets it mostly right but I feel it suffers some because it fails to point out that a part of teaching discipline is imposing consequences for actions in situations where natural consequences may not be obvious to the child.

Quite often, parents are stuck in a position where the adult's goals are never going to have any relevance to the child that the child can perceive, but are important nevertheless.  Sometimes these are even health and safety issues, such as safe behavior in public spaces or even simple things like eating one’s vegetables at dinner.

In these cases, it is critical that the parent can provide consequences for the child that can help the child understand what behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable, safe or unsafe, healthy or unhealthy, to provide relevance to the child in situations where the child may not be able to recognize relevance at that point in their mental and emotional development.

But I agree that there is an important, but fine and fuzzy, line between consequences and punishments, and that every effort should be made to connect the consequences with the behaviors that need correcting.

Unfortunately, these are usually the very situations where the child will often have the hardest time understanding the connection.  Since they may not understand why they need to change their behavior in the first place, it is hard to form a connection between the consequence and the behavior that will seem natural to them, and quite often, though we are doing our best, our imposed consequences will seem, to the child, to be the random punishments spoken against in the article.

Still, it is important that we do this when necessary.  There is a reason why most kids do not live on their own until they are 18 or older.  It is because they need parents to provide these boundaries and to teach them the discipline they need to survive on their own.

Of course, the key to this is to teach the child the self-discipline referred to in the article.  This is the long term goal.  The real difference between punishments and consequences is that the former is easy and the latter requires more effort on the part of the parent.  It requires sitting down with the child and discussing what happened and why, later on when emotions have cooled, but not too much later when memories of the event in question have softened.  It requires having consistent consequences for targeted behaviors, so the child knows what to expect when he or she acts in certain ways, and it requires some creativity to make the consequences as relevant as possible to the behaviors in question, to feel as natural as possible to the child.

It also requires building trust with the child from the earliest ages on, so when we, as parents, say “don’t do that” the child feel comfortable that we have good reasons for setting the boundaries and having the behavioral expectations we have for them, reducing the need to impose consequences to enforce compliance with our boundaries and expectations.

Children are children, though, not little adults, and because of this, from time to time, all else will fail and we will have to impose consequences that are essentially punishments for their actions.  However, this too is a part of learning how to survive in the world. 

As the kids grow up, in school the consequences for non-compliance tend to be more punitive, especially as they grow older.  As they head out into the world, there are punishments for non-compliance at work, you get fired.  There are punishments for non-compliance with the law, you get fined or go to jail or prison.  Punishments are a part of the world we are preparing them for, and it is important that they learn this too.

As I’ve said, there will also be times when the only way to get the child to comply will be through consequences that feel more punitive in nature, and it is important that we don’t flinch when these times come.  But it is critical that we lead with love and not anger, with the desire to teach more than the desire to punish.  Still, from time to time, our kids will be angry with us because they will not understand, and we’ll feel guilty for not finding the magic, fabled sentence that could have redirected the situation before such consequences became necessary, and sometimes we’ll just get it plain wrong.  We are humans and we make mistakes too.

It is a fine and fuzzy line, but if we keep this in mind and put in the extra effort, many more times than not it will work out exactly as it is supposed to and, eventually, the child and adult will get through these things stronger and better prepared for the next incident that comes along than we were before.

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