The discussion around punishments has left us confused and curious for decades. Parents struggle between intellectual awareness, emotional empathy and real-life issues, ranging from mild to severe. Punishment seems to get the job resolved in moments.
A punishment literally means “a penalty inflicted as retribution for an offence.” Ivan Pavlov and B F Skinner described behaviourism, conditioning and operant conditioning, and had us convinced that we can modify behaviour as desired. Hence “reinforcements” and “punishments” have been used with or without awareness. I haven’t met a single parent who likes using punishments, but most share that they have to resort to it. Many vehemently cite its pros, others visibly cringe at the thought, while most fall somewhere in the middle, see-sawing between mild requests to confiscating and reprimanding. The question that should we or should we not use punishment remains.
I strongly believe that punishing does more damage than good. At the outset, we may mitigate undesired behaviour or initiate desired behaviour using punishment, but it is important to take note of what might be happening at a deeper level.
Short lived impact: You might feel you have succeeded in stopping your child from kicking a chair for a moment, but you will notice that this behaviour will start again in just a few seconds.
No real learning or problem-solving: You might have managed to deter your child from bothering the person in front of her by stopping the kicking, but she doesn’t learn how to cope with boredom with empathy and respect.
Unwanted consequences: At times the punishment can cause our child to increase the kicking. Physical punishment may lead to antisocial behaviour, aggression, and delinquency among children.
Poor self image: Children often internalise the disapproval, anger and punishment, thus establishing a poor sense of self. They may see themselves as unworthy and unloved, being the cause of trouble.
Conflicting relationships: A frequent and unfortunate pay-off of punishments is relationship conflicts. Children may not remember the details of the event but do remember how they felt.
So if punishments can result in such unwanted consequences, then what is a safer practice?
Using reflection and education-based approaches can do away with several of the above mentioned drawbacks. Observing mistakes and undesirable behaviour as learning opportunities for children can help us shift focus from the person or child to the problem or the action. Reflecting on what the consequences of their actions can help them empathise with others. Offering options for corrective action and problem-solving can leave children better prepared for future situations.
Reflection and processing can help initiate more lasting changes. Encourage discipline because it provides children with a semblance of to-dos, as opposed to what not to do. They have a clearer road map to live their lives empathetically, efficiently and effectively. Discuss discipline and value of virtues. This creates character-building habits.
This may not seem like the quick acting effective approach you are looking for, but from where I see it, why the rush? What’s the urgency? By being patient, empathetic, allowing for lesson absorption, regulating your own emotions and demonstrating corrective action can teach children far more than confiscating their gadget or reducing TV time.
Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.