School Climate & Safety Commentary

Is Punishment Passé?

By Joan F. Goodman — November 05, 2003 8 min read
Does punishment have a role to play in moral education?

While contemporary educators endorse “discipline” in the service of well- managed classrooms, they have a strong distaste for “punishment.” The very word seems to suggest a harsh, antiquated, less enlightened age, the relic of a time when children’s dignity was disregarded and humiliation an accepted practice. But have we too thoroughly discarded punishment? Does it not still have a justifiable, if narrow, role in the education of students? Can we even go so far as to advocate the modest use of punishment as a vehicle for moral education?

In answering these questions, we need first to acknowledge the overlap and inconsistency of the terms. Not infrequently, discipline and punishment are used interchangeably to refer to any negative sanction administered by an authority. In other instances, punishment is understood as a subcategory of discipline, a particularly harsh variety. In the educational literature, however, punishment generally is separated from, and often opposed to, discipline. I will follow this practice, treating the two terms as distinct. Accordingly, discipline is intended to prevent a child from doing or repeating a disfavored act (or sometimes to encourage a preferred act), without regard to a change of heart. Punishment, on the other hand, goes beyond behavioral reform, and is intended to induce remorse for moral culpability. Punishment attempts to influence conscience; discipline attempts to influence consequences.

What the teacher actually “does” to a child (a scolding, a detention) might or might not differ under the two conditions. The distinction often lies in his or her intention—when punishing, to underscore the wrongdoing and inculcate a morally conscientious heart—and the child’s response to that intention. The teacher will have to convey by tone, manner, and conviction that the child has offended not just the classroom rule but a higher standard of decency. And the child, to experience punishment, will have to assent to those moral standards; to agree that what he or she did was morally offensive. Without this recognition, the child will not feel culpable, and even a serious punishment (expulsion) may cause no regret.

The stance of today’s educator—approval of discipline and disapproval of punishment—stems largely from the perception that discipline is act-directed and that punishment is person-directed. It is an educational canard to separate the action from the actor, condemning only the former. Why is this so? Probably because teachers perceive child condemnation as ineffective— securing only a temporary compliance at the cost of increased hostility, as going beyond their educational authority, and, mostly, as damaging to self- esteem.

Leading authorities on discipline, whether tilting toward noncoercive problem-solving (William Glasser and Thomas Gordon) or an assertive managerial approach (Lee Canter) agree that it is essential to maintain a classroom atmosphere without punishment where self-esteem flourishes. Sanctions, therefore, are aimed at ending misbehavior. They escalate as misbehavior is repeated, but (within limits) judgment of the child’s moral culpability is withheld. Whether a child is tardy, sports green hair, or taunts the fat student, a school disciplinarian might feel justified in saying: “You broke a school rule designed to preserve an orderly environment. Whether you think it wrong, your parents think it wrong, or even I think it wrong is immaterial. At school you cannot ... “

No right-minded person can be against classrooms characterized by supportive, caring relationships, where children are respected, their efforts as well as attainments appreciated, and their self-esteem encouraged. But the exaggerated and often artificial severance of act from person is not required to accomplish these ends. Moreover, it is remiss to establish a blanket, judgment- free atmosphere that only alters conduct, for under such conditions the important distinction between nonmoral and moral wrongdoing is lost. While the breach of a conventional rule (green hair) may warrant a disciplinary corrective to deter behavior, the breach of a moral code may well merit punishment to strengthen the conscience. For example, when a child is often tardy, one might give her accumulating demerits or a reward each time she is prompt (a form of conditioning). But would one give demerits and rewards to a child who cheats and then refrains from cheating? Unlikely, one hopes, for here the mission is to change character, not just induce behavioral conformity, and a more powerful response is required.

The stance of today's educator—approval of discipline and disapproval of punishment—stems largely from the perception that discipline is act-directed and that punishment is person- directed.

Let’s look at the problematic act-person distinction. There is a sense in which I can never be free of responsibility for my conduct unless I am unaware of my action (in a daze), aware but ignorant of the rule (uncomprehending, forgetful, uninformed), under duress (threatened by another child), or not intending the consequences (accidental). In such cases, I should be released from responsibility and appropriate correctives applied. But whatever interventions are taken under such circumstances, one of their purposes will be to arouse, not eliminate, my sense of agency and responsibility. (Alternatively, the remedy might be to forgo an intervention and drop the rule because it is unreasonable or unnecessary.)

With the exception of these conditions, I am always implicated in the actions I take, and any criticism of the action is a criticism of me as the perpetrator. Not to recognize the doer behind what is done undermines the development of personal responsibility, a quality schools are intent on supporting. But the nature of the criticism and the sanctions applied will vary depending on whether or not I have done something that is morally improper.

Just as we (usually) cannot consider an act apart from the actor, so too we should not think of the actor apart from the act. Even if a teacher perceives a child’s misbehaviors as surface expressions of underlying dispositions that need to be addressed (forgetful, indecorous, insensitive), she still is not making a blanket condemnation of the child’s self. To say you have a flaw—whether moral or just habitual—is to say you are imperfect, not a bad person. Implicit in the teacher’s judgment is her regard for, and faith in, the growing, learning child; her rebuke comes from an optimistic view of the child’s educability. If done right, it should no more demean self-esteem than telling the child he has not yet mastered penmanship, the interpretation of a poem, or the kickoff in a football game.

The person-act dichotomy is weak and overused. By never blaming the person (or by always blaming him), we blur distinctions that need to be made. Nonetheless, though blame need not imperil self-regard, it should be minimized. To limit the condemnation of children, blame should be reserved for moral indiscretions. One can address a child’s lateness, at least initially, as a behavior to be ameliorated, while blaming him for taunting.

Many of the “wrongs” children commit are breaches of school conventions and expectations. In such instances, the sole purpose of discipline is to modify the child’s behavior, to “teach him a lesson.” One might do so by looking for and altering the precipitating conditions; or, as an alternative, by administering an admonition, natural consequences (he fails the assignment if he forgets it), or deprivation. Whatever the intervention, the discipline is intended to correct what the child does. Even if you agree that the child who is tardy or dyes her hair should modify her conduct, she has not committed a moral offense (unless you interpret these behaviors as hurtful to others). The discipline should address her as a responsible agent, but it should not be punitive in addition.

Taunting the fat student, because it so clearly infringes on the well-being of a fellow student, is more than a breach of a convention; it is immoral. Here, it is not enough to end the taunting. Here, assuming a developmental readiness, one wants the child to feel regretful (which is why we ask at least small children to apologize), to want to be worthier, to understand that deliberately hurting others is a breach of a fundamental and widely held moral norm, and that the norm matters outside of school as well as inside. Punishment rather than discipline is the appropriate response.

Punishment reveals the insufficiency of discipline. When a child steals commodities from a store, a disciplinary response might be to have her return the products (assuming that will modify future behavior).

Punishment is a valuable method for encouraging children's moral growth. But it must be used parsimoniously.

When she forges someone else’s assignment and turns it in as her own, the disciplinary response might be to fail the work or have her rewrite it. These responses are insufficient because they ask for no more than an “undoing.” They fail to deliver the message that some misbehaviors are much more serious than others; that being hurtful, nasty, ridiculing, insensitive, and unfair to the rights and interests of others deserves a greater (and independent) sanction—be it disapproval or additional payment—than breaking rules intended largely to preserve an orderly environment.

Punishment, then, is a valuable method for encouraging children’s moral growth. But it must be used parsimoniously. If we punish (rather than discipline) children for a wide range of perceived wrongs— talking, lateness, sloppiness, forgetfulness, and dress-code, language, or eating violations—they will become cynical about school rules, and see them (often rightfully) as codes of convenience that adults are turning into moral offenses. We will be establishing that condemnatory environment that teachers and children rightfully find abhorrent.

Punishment (once again, a sanction not designed merely to inhibit a behavior but to address moral wrongfulness) must be reserved for deliberate offenses against the welfare of others. Given that cheating, stealing, lying, vandalizing, and injuring others are wrongs of a different order and magnitude from talking, lateness, and sloppiness, we must, if we are to have a moral impact on students, respond with a different kind of condemnation.

Joan F. Goodman is a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, in Philadelphia. She is a co-author, with Howard Lesnick, of The Moral Stake in Education: Contested Premises and Practices (2001) and the forthcoming Moral Education: A Teacher-Centered Approach (Allyn and Bacon).

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