Education Opinion

Round Two: On Punishment & Child Development

By Deborah Meier — January 31, 2013 5 min read
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Once again, Alfie Kohn joins Deborah Meier on the blog.

Dear Debbie,

I’m not sure how far apart we are on this question, but I’m happy to go another round with you and share some thoughts that your latest post sparked.

I share your rage at—and an impulse to punish—the bankers who created so much misery. But even if such punishment really did have a constructive effect (other than our own temporary feeling of grim satisfaction), I hope we also share the realization that we’re left none the wiser about how to respond to children who do something wrong, which presumably involves something closer to disrupting than to bankrupting.

When I was in the classroom, some of my students managed to enrage me from time to time, but I knew my job wasn’t to get even or make myself feel better at their expense. (The adults who worry me most are those who use their power over kids to work out their own psychological issues and then pretend that what they’ve done is in the kids’ interest: “They need to learn that they can’t ...”)

Sometimes—often—we’ll need to intervene, as you say, to make sure that one child isn’t making another miserable. But we have to keep reminding ourselves (and our kids, and their parents) that intervention doesn’t have to mean punishment. In fact, punishment is a particularly noxious and counterproductive form of intervention. You say that your “in-between position ... creates a conversation about who got hurt, who wasted whose time, and what provoked it.” Such conversations are vital—not just for resolving a given incident but, if handled skillfully, for promoting children’s social and moral development. However, we don’t need punishment for that!

In fact, conversations play out quite differently when they take place in the shadow of punishment. In that context, the primary message kids hear is, “If you do something to displease the people with the power, they’ll make you miserable.” That makes it extremely unlikely that students will reflect on more important questions: How did my action affect other people? What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of classroom (or school) do we want to have? (Research by developmental psychologists has found that punishment—and, again, it doesn’t matter if we call it “consequences"—tends to impede moral development by arresting children at the level of self-interest.)

You and I have both heard people insist that it’s unrealistic to abandon punishment. While it’s certainly true that not all nonpunitive interventions—call them “working-with” strategies—are effective, and that no intervention will solve every problem, let’s not judge the alternatives against an impossible standard. Judge them, rather, against the proven failure of the default response: Punishment can never achieve anything but temporary, resentful compliance, and it generates significant problems in the bargain. It doesn’t make the school safer. The wrongdoer doesn’t become a better person—just cleverer about avoiding detection. In fact, it may even make all the other kids, the ones in whose name we’re allegedly taking disciplinary action, feel uneasy because we’re saying, “All of you are members of this community only conditionally. You, too, could be ejected.”

One of the most striking features of any punishment is the way it creates a vicious cycle. No matter how many times we’ve watched as a punitive intervention failed to bring about any improvement (and, more likely, actually made things worse), we may assume that the only possible response is to punish again—perhaps even upping the ante. Interestingly, research psychologist Martin Hoffman found that the worst effects aren’t due to the adult’s initial intervention, but to the use of punishment after the child fails to comply with the first request. It’s the reactive use of punishment, the choice to employ it once we’ve already locked horns with the child, that proves most worrisome. Therefore, it’s most important to refrain from punishing precisely when we’re most angry or frustrated.

Ideally, non-punitive intervention strengthens rather than threatens the relationship between the adult and the student who did something wrong. For example, a teacher or principal can express strong disapproval of what the student did to a peer, but then add, as Lilian Katz suggests, “I would never let anyone do something like that to you.” This accomplishes several things at once: It distinguishes between the act and the actor, leaving no doubt that the student is still cared about and still has rights; and it communicates that the act is unacceptable because of its effect on the victim, not because the teacher happens not to like it or because it breaks a rule.

This returns us to one of your favorite topics, Deb: how kids view grown-ups. You wrote: “Students ... are eager for strong and powerful and all-knowing adults.” To which I’d reply: I’m not sure that they’re eager for power, per se, or omniscience, so much as for adults who devote their strength and knowledge to supporting, protecting, guiding, and loving.

Finally, your daughter’s complaint that adults are better at arguing reminds me of a suggestion made by Marilyn Watson. (I think I told you about her wonderful book Learning to Trust: Transforming Difficult Elementary Classrooms Through Developmental Discipline when you were still at Mission Hill.) She suggests that we refrain from “responding with the full force of our argument to justify our own positions, thereby overwhelming children with our logic.” In fact, Watson adds, we should “help children develop reasons to support their own views, even if we don’t agree with those views.” They may not be able to explain what’s really bothering them, or think of a response to our objections, so we should “help them to articulate their position, or even marshal the best argument we can think of from their perspective.”

Our primary goal, after all, shouldn’t be to make kids capitulate or comply. Rather, it’s to let kids know that they don’t have to argue as well as we do in order to be taken seriously. We also want to help them learn how to frame their arguments more convincingly. We want kids to “talk back” to us, as long as they do so respectfully, and we want them to get better at it. Most of all, we want them to know we care for them unconditionally and will help them through tough times—including times when they’ve done stuff they’ve shouldn’t have.

Looking forward to the next topic you toss out for us to explore!


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.