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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Use punishments for a long term benefit

Punishments have to be sparingly used to be effective. There is unmistakable data to prove that punishments - specifically spanking the children - make the children more aggressive and hostile over a period of years. So, why are punishments necessary?

Why are punishments needed 

Every child seems to have a  innate moral sense. Psychologists have agreed on this. But, surprisingly, it turns out that it there is a wide difference between moral reasoning and moral behaviour, a behaviour by which we resist temptation even when the possibility of detecting and punishment is zero. Enron and the Accenture cases seem to prove that even well paid corporate executives tend to behave 'immorally', when they see the possibility of detecting their behaviour is zero. If you are not convinced that  this behaviour is rampant, read this book of Jonathan Macey, The death of corporate reputation.

Harvard psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, believes that our moral reasoning is developed in three levels.  First level is of Pre-conventional morality. At this level, the view of morality is determined by obedience to fixed set of rules which are governed by punishment. Second level is of Conventional Morality where the morality is seen as the set of rules that enable one to maintain the deal and relations between people. Third view is Post conventional morality where the views are based on Universal Moral principles of right and wrong.

A child, to develop his own moral sense, needs to move from the  first level to third level in stages. He does not grow to third level in one leap. At the age of 3, child begins to lie.  By age 6, a child will tell a lie every 90 minutes, and that too in a more sophisticated manner. It is important to give such a child an experience of consistent and clear boundaries of rules (level 1), so that he can move to higher levels at later age. This is the purpose of punishment.

2 Pre-conditions to make punishment effective 

With this background, you will appreciate that if punishments have to be effective, it must satisfy these two conditions:

1. Punishments are effective when the rules of behaviour are told to the children before hand and that too, in clear terms.

For instance, the child does not understand the meaning of 'stealing' because it depends on the context. For instance, if his brother takes away his 'pencil' without asking him, we do not call it stealing. But when he 'picks the pencil' from a class student and brings it home, we call it stealing. The child should clearly understand what you mean by stealing.

In other words, punishment should not be given for unmentioned and unspecified rules. For instance, if the child breaks the rule for the first time - inadvertently - when the rule was not known to the child, the child should not be punished at that time. Instead, he should be forewarned of the rule.

This also means that rules should be as few as possible. Too many rules make it difficult to administer the punishments.

2. Punishments are effective when the rules of behaviour are consistently adhered to every time.

Consistency is very important. If the child breaks the rule, he should still be punished, even though the punishment may seem to be mistaken.

For instance, if the child is given the rule that he will be punished if he 'hits his sisters back', he should be punished even when he has 'hit' for more appropriate reasons, like the reason that his sister was 'teasing him' incessantly for long time.

Three musts while delivering punishment 

Punishments, on the other hand, should also be delivered effectively, if they have to enable the child to learn to remain within the boundaries of rules:

1. Punishment should be prompt

If the rule has been broken in the morning, punishment should not be delivered in the evening. Delay affects the child's learning from the mistake. It is of no use.

When for instance, if you are hearing about the infraction of rule on the next day, administering punishment with this delay is not effective. Although a strict forewarning could be used at such times.

2. Punishment should be emotionally safe

For a child, this is a very important condition. The message given to the child even while administering punishment should be, 'We actually care about you'. The child should feel secure even while receiving the punishment. For instance, threats of 'I do not love you', or 'I will send you to boarding' should not be issued during administering the punishment.

3. Punishment should be delivered along with 'why of the rule'

If the punishment is meant for ' not touching the dog', the child should be told the reason 'why touching dog' is harmful. If the punishment is for stealing, the child should be told the consequences of stealing. Punishments given with rationale are helpful for child in understanding the rules of behaviour, and later internalise those rules in his own behaviour.


In other words, to use punishments for its real benefit, the parents should first have a clear set of 'rules of behaviour' ( the boundaries). Then they should ensure that the children constantly remain within those set boundaries by administering punishments. The lower the number of rules, the easier  it is to administer. And above all, they should impart the rationale of the rules to the child so that he can 'internalise' the rules of behaviour and later develop the maturity to develop his own set of rules. ( Level 3)

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