I have a philosophical problem with punishing children, it stinks. On a good day, it’s at least as hard on me, if not more so than it is on them, and I don’t like it. Don’t get me wrong, this will not be one of those posts about being friends with your children. I firmly believe that I am the adult and it is my right, no my obligation, to support my children’s development by showing them firm boundaries. By giving them guidance in this crazy, free-willing world. But punishment, that’s not necessarily a part of the plan. Let me define punishment for you…
the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense
Retribution? There is no way I want my child to be engaged in retribution, let alone be on the delivering hand. But clearly, I also don’t want the to have gremlins, just post midnight snack running around my living room either.
So what’s the solution?
I’m a fan of consequence, the more natural, the better. Yes, consequence has an entirely different connotation, let’s look at that definition, shall we.
a result or effect of an action or condition.
See what I mean? One of these is about getting even, inflicting an equal, punitive response to an action or behavior. The other is about natural effects of choice. Throughout life children will make choices, they need to understand that some choices have good consquences, others not so much.
Let’s take the last thing your child did that you felt warranted a punishment. I know you can’t think of anything, here let me help you. Let’s pretend Billy hit his friend while they were playing Tonka trucks. Punishment would dictate that Billy should feel the same level of pain that he gave his friend, or at least experience some other type of punitive expression that would equal what pain he had caused. But what purpose does that serve? If Billy hurts, like he hurt, what purpose does that serve?
The concept of consequence, let it wash over you in this scenario. If Billy hit a friend, let’s call him Tommy. Tommy might hit him back, that would be a consequence, but more likely Tommy would say that he wants to go home. He doesn’t want to play any more. Billy would learn, from his action and the consequence of that action that people don’t like to be treated that way. That you don’t hurt people you like. And that when you treat people unkindly, they will not enjoy your company.
But here’s where the magic happens.
When Billy comes to you, with tears in his eyes because Tommy doesn’t want to play anymore. You get a chance to have a really good conversation with him. Yes, this can happen. Even the very young, one maybe two years old can understand a few words from mom. When you look him in his eye and say, “I don’t think Tommy liked the way you treated him. I think you hurt him. What can we do to show Tommy that you didn’t mean to hurt him?”
You are teaching. He is learning.
In that moment you are helping your child develop something experts like to call emotional intelligence. You are teaching him to identify emotions in himself and in others. Teaching him that he can acknowledge his mistakes and learn from them. And correct them. You give you child the concept of grace, repentance and redemption. He learns compassion and character. Some say these skills will not only make him a better person, but also a better student, a better employee or employer, just better.
These are the skills…the traits…the values that you want your child to have. The consequence was real, but not excessive. Instead of penalty or vengence there is growth.
So tell me, are you ready to step away from punishment?