Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why Punishment Fails

When kids do something bad, something bad must be done to them.
Is it just me or is it time we rethink this archaic strategy?

To do so, I propose we revisit our long-term objectives for our children, and then establish whether punishment is likely to make our long term goals more or less likely to become reality.

In my experience as a parent and a teacher, here are some rather universal long-term goals I often hear:

  • happy
  • balanced
  • independent
  • fulfilled
  • productive
  • self-reliant
  • responsible
  • functioning
  • kind
  • thoughtful
  • loving
  • inquisitive
  • confident
If everyone in the world attained such a list of characteristics as a right of passage, I would suspect we would all live in a better world. So if this is what we want in the long run, we have to ask ourselves if our every day practices as parents and teachers is conducive to such goals. In other words, we have to make sure our long-term goals are not sacrificed for the many short-term demands that pop up from day to day.

In his book Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn asks us to reflect in this manner:

If it's too daunting to imagine how your children will turn out many years from now, think about what really matters to you today. Picture yourself standing at a birthday party or in the hall of your child's school. Around the corner are two other parents who don't know you're there. You overhear them talking about... your child! Of all the things they might be saying, what would give you the most pleasure? Again, pause for a moment to think of a word or sentence that you would be especially delighted to hear. My guess - and my hope - is that it wouldn't be, "Boy that child does everything he's told and you never hear a peep out of him." The crucial question, therefore, is whether we sometimes act as though that is what we care about most.

There are a lot of conventional classroom management strategies that draw on the use of punishments; Zero-tolerance, three-strikes and you're out, suspensions, expulsions, late marks, zeros, detention and time-outs are all forms of institutionalized conditional acceptance.

The argument against the use of punishment as a means to achieving our long-term goals is as impressive as it is secretive, yet despite the logical arguments and scientific research against its use, punishment remains a prevalent tool in the teacher-parent toolbox.

So why doesn't punishment work? Over the next few days, I wish to borrow from Alfie Kohn's book Unconditional Parenting the six reasons why punishment fails us all.

  1. It makes people mad.
  2. It models the use of power.
  3. It eventually loses its effectiveness.
  4. It erodes our relationships with our kids.
  5. It distracts kids from the important issues.
  6. It makes kids more self-centered.


  1. I am a beginning teacher, just finished my first semester at school. I have really enjoyed reading your blog, a lot of what you say resonates with my thoughts and helps me to remind that all is not lost and we as teachers do have choices - not to grade, not to punish, not to simply teach to the test and so on. While I also strongly feel that punishing is not the way to grow responsible, cooperative individuals, I constantly find myself lacking tools to handle the situations otherwise. So what do you do, when a student constantly doesn't bring his textbook to class, is always late, doesn't read any books, even if you've given them a choice on what to read? So far I have tried explaining how their behaviour affects my work and disrupts class, but I don't see any positive changes.

    So, to sum it up, my question is - yes, punishing is not the way to go, but what is? How to deal with behaviour problems without punishing?

  2. I stand on both sides of the fence in this argument.

    I believe that no punishment (or maybe consequences is a better word) is not a good option. I know a family that was raised with no structure. The children were NEVER punished. Now those kids are in their mid to late twenties, and they are struggling to cope with the real world and have very little recognition of consequences for their actions, planning for the future, or empathizing with fellow human beings.

    I don't see a point in punishing students for the sake of punishing them (though I'm teaching college students), but having zero consequences doesn't work either. If my entire class doesn't do a reading, I'm not letting them off the hook. Since I don't assign reading tests or make them write essays about what they have read, they should at least come prepared to talk about what they have read. When I can tell the majority is unprepared, I usually give them additional writing to do in class. Yes, it is a punishment, but it's not punishment for the sake of punishment. I gear my writing towards a productive end, revealing something they didn't know before. The other day, I had students pair up and google a list of 9 terms from M.L. Pratt's "Arts of the Contact Zone." They each did a mini-presentation on one of the "literate arts of the contact zone" that they hadn't bothered to read or look up if they didn't understand. It was actually very effective because they came away having a whole new toolbox of writing and thinking strategies.

    At the college level, there isn't too much punishment for the sake of punishment, though. In elementary school, though, time-outs were certainly part of the disciplinary game, followed in middle and high school by detentions and essays. Those were usually ineffective, especially out of school suspension (completely pointless).

  3. There are not only 2 ways - punishment or no punishment. The title of Alfie Kohn book 'Beyond discipline , moving from compliance to community ' says it all. Another book ' Lost at school ' by Ross Greene relates to mainly kids who don't respond to traditional discipline because they lack skills. His approach CPS collaborative problem solving not only teaches lacking life skills, promotes relationships and as Alfie kohn says fosters values and community
    see for an eg how CPS and Alfie Kohn's Unconditional teaching is used in schools

    here are videos of CPS in action in schools and in the home

  4. Mr. Joe Bower that was interesting your perspective on discipline in school. Have you proposed your ideas to your school and if so what were their thoughts. With you saying that we need to rethink on how we use discipline in school. Do you think that some of the conventional ways maybe still need in certain situations.

  5. Thanks, Allan, for the links - a lot of food for thought!

  6. Alfie Kohn, to quote Stephen Krashen, walks on water. Of course there is no easy answer to the question, What do we do instead? It requires instrinsic motivation, which is hard to develop, but life-changing when we do. Punishment (and rewards)is all about controlling behavior. Kohn doesn't have a lot of answers, just a tremendous challenge to instill values in our children that will allow them to make the right choices.


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