Sunday, May 17, 2009

Changing the Punishment Paradigm

On Friday, Harry had his one-year checkup at the pediatrician and Bess was with. She wanted to choose a book for us to read, and the one she chose was A Book About Disobeying: Help Me Be Good! by Joy Berry.

Oh dear lord! Where do I start???

Well, I guess I should disclose that I am not a big fan of the concept of "obedience". I think that teaching kids that they are required to do something simply because an adult told them to do it is a recipe for disaster (both now and later, when adult authority is replaced by peer pressure), and also for a less-than-humane child. I am more comfortable with teaching children about respect, critical thinking, and good/bad, safe/unsafe, and kind/unkind choices.

The worst part of the book, from my perspective, was its take on punishment. According to the book (I am paraphrasing here), parents MUST punish their children when they disobey so that children can learn to obey, and children should gratefully accept their punishment as the well-intentioned guidance that it is.

From a psychological perspective, punishment is something that is designed to decrease the likelihood that the punishee will repeat a certain behavior. Punishment can be either positive, in the sense that it involves doing something to the punishee (i.e., spanking, dropping bombs) or it can be negative in the sense that it involves taking something from the punishee (i.e., sending a child to bed without dessert, imposing a trade embargo).

As a recovering experimental psychologist, a humane educator, and a parent, the idea of punishment just rubs me the wrong way. I don't think that punishment is a particularly good means of controlling behavior. Aside from the philosophical question of whether we want our children to make choices based simply on their desire to avoid punishment, I do not think that it is an effective way to shape children's long-term behavior, which is ultimately our goal as parents. If the only reason a child does or does not do something is because he or she is afraid of the potential negative consequences that will be imposed by an authority figure, then the likelihood is high that as they grow, they will either become more adept at concealing their behavior, or will act one way when they think their parents might find out about it and another way when they think the likelihood is low that their parents will ever find out.

Research on laboratory animals has borne this out - punishment is most effective if it is especially severe or perfectly consistent, and I would argue that it is undesirable if not impossible to meet these conditions in real life. And we've all heard of learned helplessness, which is the condition that can result from relentless punishment - and I think we can all agree that we would rather our children not suffer from it.

Extrapolating forward, I think that a society built on a paradigm of punishment is one where increasing violence and discord is inevitable. If, instead of trying to figure out why someone steals or sells drugs and solving the problem at its roots, we just throw them in jail for awhile with other thieves and dealers, all we're doing is escalating the situation. (And forgive me for stating the obvious, but if the threat of prison were a good deterrent, then prisons would be much emptier, no?) Further, if our response to violence is to punish it with more violence, and we are met with further violence as a punishment for our violence - is it just me or is there a flaw in this system? Where does it stop? Do we really want to find out?

If instead, we built our society on a paradigm of cooperation, mutual respect, and shared goals, then we might be able to reduce the crime and violence that is perpetrated against other people and against the world as a whole. I am not naive to the fact that this would not solve all our problems - but it is clear, at least to me, that the way we are doing things is not working. Maybe it's time to shake things up and try something new.

1 comment:

  1. All her books are of that old school form of parenting. Funny, even the illustrations in her books bug me!