Justifications for Punishment

Justifications for Punishment

Punishment of child misbehavior is and Old School approach to “how to parent,” and it’s as old as the hills. It just comes naturally. Almost all parents use it as a means of correcting the wrongdoing of their children for a couple of reasons. One is that children clearly need to learn that doing wrong, like being disrespectful, or stealing, or hurting someone, needs to stop. We would all agree that misbehavior needs to be corrected.

Another justification parents give for using punishment is to teach their children about life–specifically, that wrongdoing usually invites negative consequences, especially if you are caught. It often happens that even if you are not caught, wrongdoing has a way of coming back to “bite you,” and you end up getting what you deserve. So punishment is often used as a means of teaching children about, and preparing them for, the harsh realities of life.

Endless Justifications for Punishment

Thus, it’s really quite understandable that parents in my classes almost always object to my position that punishment should not be used as a correctional tool or as a means of teaching children about the real world. They were punished as kids, they say, and many were often punished soundly, by being “whupped,” spanked, beaten, or thrown across the room. Or, they were punished by less brutal methods, such as being sent to their room, sent to bed without supper, grounded, denied a favorite toy, made to do extra chores, and in many other ways.

Parents will tell me, “It was good for me.” “I learned from it.” “I’m glad my parents punished me the way they did; I’m a better person for it.” “Punishment helped me learn right from wrong.” “You didn’t smart-mouth my mom or dad. You just didn’t, because you knew you would get it.” “Negative behavior deserves negative consequences.” “Kids have to learn about life.”

Parents’ justifications for punishing child misbehavior are endless. And to a certain extent, they make sense. I agree that if you do somebody wrong, or cheat, or inflict injury, your misbehavior or wrongdoing needs to be corrected. Isn’t that the purpose behind our correctional system? That’s what our legal and penal system is all about–you break the laws, and you get punished–at least, if you are caught. “Let the punishment fit the crime” is a sacred mantra in our culture, and for that matter, around the world. Sometimes the punishment is very severe. “And that’s the way it should be. How else are these hardened criminals going to learn?” “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” “Spare the rod, and spoil the child.” Even the bible makes it crystal clear that physical punishment is the way to go, for the good of the child. (Actually, this interpretation of that often-quoted biblical maxim is a distortion of its original meaning, where the “rod” was actually a shepherd’s crook, or staff, used to guide straying sheep back into the fold. So the child needs to be guided by, not beaten with, the rod.)

Even when you are not caught doing something wrong, life will take care of you in one way or another, because you deserve it. “What goes around, comes around.” “If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.” “Life exacts its toll on the wrong doer.” “Life has a way of evening things out.” “It all comes out in the wash.”

Physical Punishment: Illogical and Dangerous

But I am not talking about the legal system here or life in the big picture. I’m talking about the family, parents and children. And at a certain point the argument in favor of parents punishing children’s misbehavior breaks down. As Spock (Star Trek, not Dr. Spock) would say, “It’s illogical.” How so?

First, an obvious example. A child hits or bites his younger sister. It hurts, and she cries. The parent gets angry and wants to teach the biter a lesson. Some parents advocate biting the biter to show how it hurts. Some parents advocate spanking or other forms of physical punishment.

These are all illogical. How can you teach a child to not be violent by being violent? All forms of physical punishment are forms of violence, different in degree perhaps, but violence nonetheless. The only thing a violent punishment (including spanking or slapping the hand) teaches is that you can correct violent behavior by being more violent, and more threatening, than the violent offender. It teaches children that it’s okay to get their way, and impose their will on others, by being violent. In this way parents bully children and teach them to be aggressors–bullies–by being physically intimidating and violent.

Physical punishment–in all its forms–is also dangerous. The question is, Where does it stop? When you cross the sacred boundary of touching someone, it had better be done a) in affection, and b) with the person’s permission. If you touch someone in a threatening way, aggressively, or violently, you are inviting a defensive, violent response. Not only that, but you are inviting a violent response that is stronger than the one you have used. In other words, violent behavior escalates.

Hence, the question, Where does it stop? And other questions immediately follow: Who stops it? How? As escalation of a physical altercation grows, unchecked, it can quickly get out of hand and progress from a slap to a blow with a fist, to a club of some kind, to a knife, and then to a gun. The escalating expression of anger or fear in a violent form almost inevitably leads to someone getting hurt–perhaps seriously so–or even getting killed.

From a parent’s perspective, physical punishment can also be dangerous. I have known many parents who have had the experience of “getting carried away” with beating or shaking a child, to the point where they were within an eyelash of inflicting serious physical harm. I am not referring to abusive parents, whose internal controls were minimal or non-existent, and who routinely used physical force pathologically. I am talking about loving and well-meaning parents whose anger got out of hand on one or two isolated occasions, and who were seriously frightened by its intensity. They were overcome with remorse and the fear that they just might lose control and really injure the child they love so dearly. A parent’s natural emotional response of remorse, or guilt, is an intuitive sign that physically attacking a child is wrong.

No Justification for Violent Behavior

So there is absolutely no justification for physical punishment. It is a form of violence, an abusive intrusion on another person’s space. The only way to prevent violence is to not use it. That means no touching in anger. Ever.

Finally, the truth is that almost all physical punishment, and almost all violent behavior, starts with words. Someone makes a demand. Someone hurls an insult. Someone verbally resists or defies someone else. A physical response to words cannot be justified for the reasons give above. Beyond those considerations, a verbal provocation or a defiant verbal reaction requires a verbal response, not a physical one. The use of words is how a peaceful society resolves conflict. Shootouts and gang fights are not recommended methods. The use of words in resolving differences requires effective communication skills and other relationship skills like self-awareness, self-control, and empathy. Verbal altercations should never degenerate into physical attacks or abuse.

The REAL Reasons Why Parents Punish

It is my conviction that 99% of the time the REAL reason parents punish child misbehavior is one or both of the following. Either a) their ego has been bruised by a child’s disrespectful or disobedient behavior (making the parent feel helplessness about forcing a child’s compliance); or b) they just don’t know better ways of how to be a parent than some of the rather primitive methods they learned from their own parents. If the reason is the latter (ignorance), it can be corrected by using a New School approach to parenting, which is based on relationship skills. If the reason is the former (ego) the challenge might be greater because a certain amount of humility is needed to put the “I’m the parent, and I’m always right” attitude in its place. One’s ego can be a horrendous stumbling block to effective parenting.

Many Other Problems with Punishments

If you are not convinced about the futility of punishments, please see my article “The Problems with Punishments.” I have listed there twelve problems that parents incur when they punish children’s misbehaviors.

Much Better Approaches

There are much better, and more effective, ways to deal with children’s misbehaviors than by using punishment. That’s what all my writing, teaching, and coaching is about: how to parent effectively, and get better results, by using relationship skills rather than primitive, Old School, power and control methods like punishments. I’m not saying it is necessarily easy to use more sophisticated parenting techniques, but it’s far more effective and rewarding.

It’s worth the effort to spend time learning and practicing my New School techniques because children respond so much better, and the parent-child relationship benefits enormously (both in the short-term and the long-term) from loving, cooperative, and harmonious interaction. The things parents want to teach through the use of punishments, and the behaviors they want to extinguish by punishing, are more surely accomplished through effective use of relationship skills and a different attitude about what discipline is.


3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book  that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model and the New School Parenting model.  Please see these links if you are interested in more information or wish to purchase.

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