Friday, December 3, 2010

Punishment: It makes people mad

As a part of a series of posts on why punishment fails, I wish to highlight the first of six reasons that Alfie Kohn offers in his book Unconditional Parenting:

Why Punishment Fails
It makes people mad. Like other forms of control, the use of punitive consequences often enrages whoever is on the receiving end, and the experience is doubly painful because he or she is powerless to do anything about it. What history teaches us about nations echoes what psychology teaches us about individuals: Given a chance, those who feel like victims may eventually become victimizers.
We tell kids all the time to use their words and talk with their peers when conflict arises. When kids retaliate in an effort to garnish revenge on someone who may have done them wrong, we discourage such vigilante justice and try to teach them that revenge only serves to make the problem worse.

So why do we turn around and do precisely what we teach kids not to do? What is it about authority that blinds us from the fundamental questions about the wisdom of this approach? Kohn asks
How likely is it that intentionally making children unhappy will prove beneficial in the long run? And: If punishment is so effective, how come I have to keep doing it to my child over and over?
Don't ever let someone tell you that punishment doesn't teach kids a lesson. It most certainly does. But its not the lesson we would hope for. Instead, Kohn explains, that punishment is likely to teach them a very powerful lesson:

 You can get your way with people who are weaker than you are by hurting them.
Punishment is quick and easy. After all, how much time and effort does it take to dole out a punishment? You don't need to know the kid, the situation or even the context. Heck, you don't even really need to talk with the kids or even at them.

You just need to dispense the punishment. All you really need to do is make someone miserable.

However, the ease of time and effort that punishment affords us comes at an alarming cost.


  1. John;

    It will make me sound medieval, but blanket statements like "punishment is bad" is simply another oversimplification of an issue that, in the case of children, for example, requires attention to the nature of the individual child in considering when, how and if punishment is appropriate.

    An argument like Kohn's, "What history teaches us about nations echoes what psychology teaches us about individuals..." is simply fallback to a social cliche rather than thoughtful articulation. It goes like this, "Everyone knows(!) Only stupid people punish [read: beat] their children" [here we need a simple to grasp example; Ho about:] When we punish nations [read: kill their people] it makes them angry. The implication is that "punishment of children for any reason is like armies killing people."

    What? Are you serious? ... I know; I don't think that is good reasoning either.

    I applaud your effort to make your teaching benefit your children/students to the max. I do, as before, suggest that you pursue valuable methods and strategies in a constructive, positive way. Can good teaching be done without criticism of other methods (like punishment in this case)?

    For example, "Collaborating on a vocabulary list using real time Prezi with my students" is an idea for cooperative learning; good! It is more constructive than something like, "I am sick of stupid powerpoints [read: and all the benighted people who still use them!].

    Let's lead constructive change by modeling what is good and discussing what works.

    I'm with you on that!

  2. At some point, if teaching is to be considered a profession, we have to refuse to shy away from discussing inconvenient topics.

    Teachers don't get a pedagogical blank cheque. There are some things that the teaching profession subscribes to that need to be abandoned.

    The research is clear on this one. Punishment doesn't do anything to support our long term goals for children. Hell, there isn't even much evidence that it fulfills our short-term goals.

    Honestly, I've yet to see a punishment that didn't make matters worse.

  3. Joe,

    How do you define "punishment?" And how do you distinguish punishment from consequences?


  4. What would you suggest to do otherwise? If your child hits another and there are no repercussions, he or she will do it again.

  5. @Joanne, have you read Alfie Kohn's book Beyond Disclipline?He does a brilliant job on distinguishing the two.

    @mistereason, I have two responses. Firstly, to assume that kids will do horrible things without the fear of punishmnent is an awfully dark view of children. Secondly, who said that the only alternative to punishment is to do nothing? Such an assumption might be an indictment of parents and teachers because maybe they actually know no other way to teach children than to punish.

    The other root of such a false dichotomy (punish or do nothing) is sold by those who wish to make punishment the lesser of two evils. But this argument is but a caricature of the alternatives. That is, working with kids to find out WHY they are hitting other children and then artfully guiding and working with them to see how hurting other children makes others feel terrible.

    Working with takes time and effort - which some people are not willing to give. But I argue there is nothing more worthy of our time and effort than working with children to become caring people.

  6. I would like to read your point of view when that young lady you are holding is a teenager. Enough said.


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