Parent wise

Our culture of punishment, and why it doesn’t work

At all levels, from the individual to the collective, there has always been a strong need for those in a perceived position of power to control or at least regulate others. In order to make sense of life with all its mystery, we like to categorize and label. We decide what is good and what is bad all the way from family to government. It gives us the illusion of organization and control when we patrol and punish those who don’t “do it our way.”

Clearly a certain amount of control and labeling is essential for a well-run society, but we don’t know when to stop. We don’t trust the individual, and we don’t really trust ourselves, so we rely on collective thinking — whatever that thinking happens to be at any given time in history — to create the rules.

And then we use a system of reward and punishment to regulate that collective consciousness. Civilized society relies on a punitive system of behavior management, but that doesn’t mean it has to start in the family. As a matter of fact, if the family worked without punishment, far fewer citizens would end up in our punitive system.

Too much regulation can destroy creativity and learning, dismiss intuition, belittle, shame and stifle change.

This is why punishment does not work for our benefit, but why it does keep the illusion alive that we are in control. In the family, we project our experiences and knowledge onto our children, assume that we are right, and believe that they must listen and learn from us.

To an extent, that is necessary — but to what extent? Where do we stop to insure their security, confidence, individuality, creativity, trust and respect?

What is punishment after all if not our defensive, reactive impulse to feeling threatened?

Our children’s spontaneity is often inconvenient for us, a nuisance, and so it is much easier to “nip it in the bud” than to spend time problem-solving, negotiating, dealing with their conflicting emotions, or hearing things from their point of view.

We are so afraid of being vulnerable — of being wrong or not having the right answer — that we stand on principle of being right even when we have no idea. These methods are embedded in religions and in family strategies.

Even when parents desperately want things to change, they are fearful of letting go of punishment, of control — the tried and true methods. They don’t know what else to do. We have learned that controlling others with fear works to get our way. That’s how most of us were brought up. And we have lost the ability to talk sense with our children without laying blame.

When our children lie, get sneaky, refuse to listen, act defiantly, all they are doing is protecting and defending themselves against the threats and blame they have come to expect.

This is not to say that children don’t need to learn social graces, consideration for others and cooperation. Children can learn better, take responsibility, and show respect for self and others without rewards, punishment or blame of any kind. It’s just harder for us to learn a new way of maintaining authority. And we don’t have the time.

The argument from a parent afraid to give up punishment is, “What am I going to do, let them run wild?”

The assumption here is that the child is wild and out of control by nature, has no desire or capability to be social or cooperative, and thus must be trained. This is the basic assumption and the root of the world’s problems as I see it. We don’t trust, and so we raise a society that is not to be trusted.

In fact, we humans are evolved to live cooperatively in society. We have lived in social groups, dependent on one another for our survival since the beginning of time. We know how to do it.

The problem comes when those who think they know better get in the way of the child’s developmental process, fear antisocial or uncooperative behavior, and start forcing behavior children are not yet ready for.

The wise teacher or leader (read parent) does not coerce behavior or force influence.

The greatest influence comes from those teachers who believe in and highlight the natural capabilities of the student, who do not presuppose what that student should or should not be or do, but who trust in and nurture the student’s potential.

But when that student is seen as a reflection of the teacher, and therefore the student’s behavior is taken personally, that’s when power and control come into play. It becomes more about the teacher.

Our task, our mission as parents, must be to soften our fears and trust the innate capabilities of our children and honor ourselves and our needs at the same time. We must allow our children to be true to themselves, rather than force them to be the solution for someone else.

Finding that path is the art of parenting and is accomplished with calmness and trust, self-confidence and balance.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed, is the director of Connective Parenting and founder of The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she teaches parent education classes. She is the author of “When Your Kids Push Your Buttons” and “Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With.” Email

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