Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Consequences for whom?

When I share with people that I don't believe in rewarding or punishing students, I tend to get some very odd looks. The idea that a parent or teacher would not reward children for good behavior or punish them for being bad seems to many to be more than just a foreign idea.

Here is one of the first questions I get asked:

Don't you believe in consequences? How will children grow up to be good people if they don't know that there are consequences to their actions?

I do believe there are consequences for people's actions, and kids really do need to learn this, but when people imply that children need to learn consequences, they almost always mean the consequences to the child. If this is the kind of myopic character development we endorse is it any wonder how many kids grow up to be self-serving, egotistical, narcissists?

In his book Beyond Discipline: From Compliance To Community, Alfie Kohn makes the case that punishment actually impedes the process of ethical development:

A child threatened with an aversive consequence for failing to comply with someone's wishes or rules is led to ask, rather mechanically, "What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don't do it? - a question altogether different from "What kind of person do I want to be?" or "What kind of community do we want to create?"
Think about such a shift in the context of this commonly heard defense of punishment:
"When children grow up and take their places in society, they're going to realize that there consequences for their actions! If they rob a bank and get caught, they're going to be put in jail. They'd better learn that lesson right now."
The fatal flaw in this argument is that we want children not to rob a bank - or do various other things that are unethical or hurtful - because they know it's wrong, and also because they can imagine how such actions will affect other people. But when disciplinarians talk about imposing "consequences" for a student's actions - and inducing him to think about those consequences ahead of time - they almost always mean the consequences to him. The focus is on how he will get in trouble for breaking the rule. This fact, so fundamental that it may have escaped our notice entirely, is a devastating indictment of the whole enterprise. Just as some people try to promote helping or sharing by emphasizing that such behaviors will eventually benefit the actor, so the reason for the child to behave "appropriately" is the unpleasantness he will suffer if he fails to do so.
By contrast, ethical sophistication consists of some blend of principles and caring, of knowing how one ought to act and being concerned about others. Punishment does absolutely nothing to promote either of these things. In fact, it tends to undermine good values by fostering a preoccupation with self-interest. "What consequences will I suffer for having done something bad?" is a question that suggests a disturbingly primitive level of moral development, yet it is our use of punishment that causes kids to get stuck there!
You say you're concerned about the real world, where some people do awful things? So am I. In the real world, getting children to focus on what will happen to them if they are caught misbehaving simply is not an effective way to prevent future misbehavior because it does nothing to instill a lasting commitment to better values or an inclination to attend to others' needs. Most people who rob banks assume they won't get caught, in which case there will be no consequences for their action, which means they have a green light to go ahead and rob.

If we really care about character growth and ethical development in children, we have to stop managing their behaviors and start working with them as safe and caring allies. We need to stop seeing misbehavior as this thing to be squashed out and start seeing misbehavior as problems to be solved together.

We have to stop reacting to misbehavior by saying:

He has done something bad; now something bad must be done to him.

And we need to start saying:

We have a problem here; how are we going to solve it together?
On a superficial level, some disciplinarians use the "real world" as justification for rewards and punishment as a means to manage children's behavior; however, real pragmatism tells us that working with kids to solve their problems constitutes as the only hope we have of reducing the frequency of misbehavior over the long haul, and our only hope for helping kids grow into caring citizens.

Lilian Katz summarizes this discussion up nicely:

Some teachers tend to focus on what is happening rather than on what is being learned. They may wish to simply stop the incident rather than consider which of many possible interventions is most likely to stimulate long-term development and learning.

It takes courage not to punish, and it takes real effort to see misbehavior as an opportunity for the teacher to teach and the student to learn.


  1. I believe there is a time and a place for discipline - self-discipline, that is. I want my own children and my students to learn how to make and stick to a solid ethical philosophy that drives how they act. Forcing it upon them, however, with bribes and extortion is dangerous.

  2. Thank you for this post. I've just ordered the book.
    Not long ago, I was teaching a class of 9-year olds, a demonstration lesson, and we did a poem with lots of prepositions in it saying where the dolpins swam. The children's task was to write their own poem with an animal of their choosing. At one point, a boy complained to me that his table-mate had knocked his pencils on the floor, clearly expecting, or hoping, me to do something about it. I congratulated the perpetrator for allowing the victim to use the language we were in fact practising. "ON the floor. Well done! A perfect example of the language I'd like you both to use." They both looked at me confused. This wasn't how it was supposed to work. At the end, I was pleased with the work they had produced, and feel I would have made an enemy of one of them if I'd reacted differently.

  3. You introduced me to Alfie Kohn and I have been so grateful. Increasingly, I am taking a critical stance towards rewards and punishment in my school instead of simply going my own way privately. We should be able to find some time in meetings and the staff room to consider these essential features of our unwritten curriculum (often written policy), and it would be nice to not be looked at strangely when we challenge cherished notions. Not so; I am also getting the looks and it makes me nervous. I'm trying to repress that feeling and actualize the idea of staffs as being reflective professional learning communities.

  4. My son in senior school was suspended for sticking chewing gum on his friend's book. We got a long letter, telling us "what" he had done and that this behaviour was intolearble. Not once had they mentioned that he did it because his peer had drawn condoms on his science book and my son was scared the teachers would think it was him. Your words ring clearly when i had begged them to try and solve the problem and find out "why" he had done it. The principal was even thinking of suspending him because he was perceived as a "gangster". He is now in year 8 in the same school and doing very well in studies, is the school drummer and has been chosen to represent Kenya in the South Africa World Triathalon event. His hormones have appeared to have settled down!

    Naini Singh, Mombasa, Kenya

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  6. Sorry... formatting went crazy!

    I just got a 'B' today in my assessment feedback for the first year of a post-graduate teaching qualification. I'm practically speechless. Not at the mark (though that's an insult considering my experience and output) but at the pathetic feedback and utter lack of engagement in my progress. You'd think that it was every teacher's mission to help 'students' achieve the best they were capable of, but now, after a year of study, I'm under no illusions. I'm seriously considering quitting.

    Is it not hopeless when even the teachers of teachers are at sea in the destructive delusion of grades?



  7. This is a really important issue. I often think re-direction is much more effective than punishment.

    This concept of take your punishment and think about what you did extend to the wider society at large. Even the prisons are based on the same model in the US, which is why recidivism is so high. It's not ethics, it's about whether or not you will get caught or if you are willing to take the risk of paying for the crime.

    We need to start teaching empathy and social responsibility from an early age and the classroom is one of the best places to start.

  8. This is slightly off topic though raw and real.
    Who has a right to say what is 'right' and what is 'wrong'... I have just come from the schooling system (in 2006), I am happily married, have 2 beautiful boys, a husband also suffering and more so though post traumatic stress, a mentally ill mother and only 2 years part time study to go before I'm a qualified teacher though still I do not believe that I am achieving enough. My internal critic runs constantly and I acknowledge that this is a complex that I have seen affected countless fellow high achieving students. A lot of students don’t even get time to figure out who they are and where they belong on this planet before they are filled with guilt about not being the best in absolutely everything they do… We are constantly being judged… though being the best does not bring you happiness as my recently deceased friend Georgia may have told you if she had known of how many subliminal messages she had received from the way society is. This beautiful intelligent 21 year old had respect for all she came in contact with; she saw you for who you were a person not competition, she was at Uni, engaged and had bought a house and yet no-one knew that this busy life was her mask and her thoughts were so negative that she took her life on the 2nd of this month; October 2010. Isn’t this degree of judging meant for that higher power?
    I’m interested in preserving life and therefore I will be Unschooling my children until society can step in and prevent such deaths. Did you know that her brain was still developing into the adult formation and the only skills she had to deal with this emotional time was that of how to run you pseudo life.
    With this constant push for success measured by others agendas we as educators are the only ones who can bring about change where it is needed:- at the grass roots, to protect the innocent from those ignorant of the reality they live in. Please join me, as no further harm should ‘need’ to occur.

  9. I am curious Joe...what is your relationship with Alfie Kohn?

  10. @ My Musings: I read his books. Why do you ask?

  11. Hi Mr. Bower,

    I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I am currently taking EDM 310 with Dr. Strange and I was assigned to comment on your blog posts. I will be posting a summary of my comments on your posts to my blog ( on November 7, 2010. Please feel free to take a look. You can also visit our class blog at (

    I really like your approach to discipline. I have a one year old and I have really struggled with how I wanted to deal with discipline issues. I do not want her to act out or get into trouble but yet I do not want to punish her. I want to teach her the right way to behave and show her why her behavior might or might not be appropriate at that certain time. I think I am going to have to purchase the book you mentioned. Thank you for your post!

  12. I really want to agree with what you wrote but as ever I am drawn to the notion that there is much in a generalization that can not be found in any one individual. Therefore while I think that such an approach can work with some individuals, with others it never would.

    Part of the issue is that knowing there are consequences to actions extends beyond the mere reward or punishment for behaviours we deem postive or negative respectively. It extends to acceptance of choice for our actions and acceptance of responsibility for what (i.e. the consequences) flows from those choices…simply, there is more to consequences than other peoples views of ones behaviour.

    Kids grow up to be ‘self-serving, egotistical, narcissists’ for all sorts of reasons and not necessarily for their parents approach to discipline.

    That there is a question “What kind of person do I want to be?" or "What kind of community do we want to create?"” is not in doubt. But younger children can not conceptualise this in any meaningful way. And the bit about ‘what happens if I don’t?’ is well documented by Kolhberg studies into moral development. Sure, you might say, those studies are affected by the way in which children learn from a ‘consequences-approach’ to their parenting, but this would not explain the more sophisticated repsonses from 16 year olds.

    The point about robbing banks is that the younger the child, the bigger the ego and therefore the more difficult for them to not only imagine how others will be affected but to even care long enough for it to become part of their character.

    While it is important for children to be able to make mistakes and not ‘get into trouble’ (often a source of trying to hide a crime), there are some mistakes that a child can not be allowed make first…i.e. they need to know the consequences ahead of time. It could be argued that it is for this the Romans held that ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’.

    I do not think that children ask themselves “What consequences will I suffer for having done something bad?” I think punishment (although you didn’t define this) makes them say (subconsciously) ‘I will not do this because I will be punished’.

    Adults rob banks for more reasons than the assumption they won’t get caught. Indeed, the corollary of the argument is that if people thought they would get caught that they wouldn’t do it, yet many do think their could get caught and still do it.

    In an ideal world, a parent and teacher would see a poor behaviour, instruct the child and all would be well. But in reality, not every child can learn this way. And for teachers, they would spend most of their day helping children learn about their behaviours rather than geography or maths etc.

    I think the answer is a bit of both. Obviously a caring and informed parent would try to help their child learn from their mistakes in a positive way. But occasionally Johnny has to go in the Thinking Corner. I do not think social isolation from a group for an offence is a strategy that exists because we have a consequences-approach to discipline. I think it is the natural outcome of groups who say we don’t need to tolerate that behaviour.

    The word ‘disciplinarian’ has come to mean something negative. I think a few disciplinarians gave it a bad name. I would like to know the definition of discipline used since ‘discipline’ can be positive - such as learning to put on your seat belt now rather than after you’ve gone through the windscreen, or not talking with food in your mouth before you start to choke.


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