Education Opinion

Alfie Kohn: Why Punishment Doesn’t Work

By Deborah Meier — January 24, 2013 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Guest blogger Alfie Kohn joins Bridging Differences today. He will blog with Deborah Meier for the next month.

Dear Deb,

Thanks for inviting me to join you on this forum so we can be overheard by people other than a waiter when we affectionately poke each other. Of course you’re right that we agree on the big issues—those that all educators most urgently need to be discussing. But perhaps we can stimulate some thought by exploring a few questions on which we see things a little differently.

Whenever it appears that I disagree with someone, I like to begin by figuring out where we’ve parted company. Is our disagreement substantive or just a function of how we’re defining our terms? Is it about description (the way we think things are) or prescription (the way we think they should be)? Is it about ends or means? With respect to the issues you’ve raised this week, I’d add a more specific question: Do you think punishment is sometimes appropriate and beneficial, or do you agree with me that it isn’t but contend that it sometimes must be used as a transitional measure, the idea being that it should be faded out once the students’ (or their parents’) trust in the educators has been established and a caring school community has been constructed?

I’m hoping you’ll say the latter because then we can just argue about whether other stopgap measures might be used instead—or, if students are going to be punished, we can quibble about how often and for how long. I’d certainly agree that it’s difficult to quit cold turkey, but I think it’s important to invite educators and parents who may have been raised with punishment to question its value. (A small study published in Contemporary Educational Psychology found that preservice teachers were more likely to endorse punitive strategies with students if they themselves had been punished when they were children.)

By definition, to punish is to deliberately make someone suffer, either because a primitive version of justice seems to demand it (If you do something bad, then something bad must be done to you.) or because it’s assumed that punishment will teach you a lesson. The premise here is that when we make you unhappy by forcing you to do something you find aversive, or by preventing you from doing something you enjoy, you’ll become a better person.

What punishments—even if they’re euphemistically called “consequences” (so we can feel better about making a child feel bad)—really do is make the child angry, teach him that you get your way in life by using your power over those who are weaker, and make it less likely that he’ll focus on how his actions affect others. Punishment undermines moral development by leading people to ask, “What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it” and actively discouraging them from asking, “What kind of person do I want to be?” (I’ve laid out these arguments in more detail in my books Unconditional Parenting and Beyond Discipline, and I’ve just posted the relevant section of the former book on-line at www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/punishment.htm for those who are interested.)

It’s crucial to question not only the effectiveness of punishment—in fact, it can never buy us anything more than temporary compliance, and it does that at a disturbing cost—but the beliefs that often underlie it: that kids are basically bad and will do terrible things without the threat of punishment hanging over them, that punishment is the best (or even only) way to socialize children, that the only alternative to punishment is permissiveness, that it’s an appropriate way to express love and care, and so on. As you know, many kids, too, have internalized some of these myths, which may be even sadder than encountering them in adults.

I don’t want to be a purist here and demand that we (as educators) impose on parents our humanistic ideals that may sound unfamiliar and suspicious, particularly regarding what we do with their children, without explaining what we’re up to, respectfully sharing our intentions, reassuring them about how our long-term objectives overlap with their own, and inviting their responses. But neither would I want us to shrug and say, “Well, they expect (or even demand) that kids will be punished when they misbehave, so we’d better do that.” You wouldn’t paddle a child just because a parent urged you to do so, right? Well, I draw the line at punishment itself, not just corporal punishment. I do so partly because of my bedrock values about how people of any age should be treated, and partly because the empirical case against punishment—its destructive effects and its lack of benefits—is so powerful.

As usual, Debbie, I celebrate your candor. Many people like to pretend it’s not really punishment if they can portray what they’re doing as “logical” or “natural"; you acknowledge that at its core it’s really about power. And that in itself is a good reason to avoid it—for reasons based on what you have written about so eloquently elsewhere. Kids need to be able to develop trusting relationships with adults. You’ve pointed out many times that top-down, test-driven “school reform” teaches kids that their teachers aren’t trustworthy. But power-based interactions between teachers and kids (such as punishment) fundamentally disrupt that trust and any sort of caring alliance. The tougher the kid, the more critical it is to establish that alliance—and thus, paradoxically, the more important it is not to punish when the kid does something wrong.

Were you really able to get away with saying “we’ll see,” rather than laying out a list of penalties as most schools do, when students wanted to know how they’d be punished for an offense? Most observers would be appalled by the prospect of inconsistency and unpredictability. My own view is that a rigid, legalistic system, with the same penalties applied to every offender, does offer some reassurance that adults can’t play favorites—but it does so only in the context of a punitive system. You don’t need to worry about applying the same penalty to every offender when you’re not using penalties—that is, when you’ve replaced a “doing to” approach with a “working with” approach.

The latter, which I’ve described elsewhere (as have many others, of course), isn’t just about reacting differently to what kids do, but seeing it differently, so a troubling action is construed as a problem to be solved rather than an infraction to be punished. And that’s the model I think we try to communicate to parents. When we’re asked, “What are you going to do to the kid who did this to my kid?”, we might reply, “Well, that depends on our goal. If we’re looking for revenge, I guess we could punish him. But if the goal is for your kid—and all the kids—to be safe here, then punishing that other student is the last thing we’d want to do. Here’s why ...”

I’d like to say two things about what I’m calling a “working with” model. The first is that a lot of schools try to do something along those lines—building community, working on conflict resolution, implementing peer mediation programs, and so on—but they’re still “doing to” kids at the same time, relying on punitive interventions like time-outs, detentions, suspensions, etc. What they’re doing, I fear, is taking away with one hand what they’re giving with the other.

My other observation is that rewards (or “positive reinforcement”) isn’t an alternative to punishment; it’s just the other side of the same doing-to coin. That includes the reward of adult approval. Trying to win the favor of a teacher is still an extrinsic reason for treating other people decently or exploring ideas, and it’s no more likely than other rewards or punishments to foster a genuine commitment to the value or an enjoyment of learning.

All of this leaves me musing about the related question you raised, which has to do with the nature of adult authority. Like you, I believe there’s an important role for adults to play in kids’ education, and it’s not a passive one by any means. (Educational authoritarians and libertarians—Our Lady of the Fiercely Snapping Ruler and “free” schools like Sudbury Valley—paradoxically share the assumption that adult authority is based on power; they just disagree about whether that’s a good thing.) But it’s not just a question of whether teachers or administrators have authority; the question is what kind of authority it is. Is it based on the adult’s position and relative power? Or is it authority that emerges from the quality of the adult’s thinking, her wisdom, her deep concern for students’ well-being?

Wouldn’t you agree that we want kids to respect adults because their judgment is good rather than because they have the power to hurt kids who don’t obey them? It’s sort of like wanting kids to look up at adults metaphorically, not just literally—because the grown-ups are impressive and not because they’re tall. The more we want the former kind of authority, the more we need to steer clear of punishment and the more we should, as a teacher once explained his approach to me, “be in control of putting the kids in control.”

It’s just like we’re having dinner again, Deb. What’s for dessert?


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.