Against Punishment

(Photo by Mark Burgh)

Well before she was born, I made the decision never to hit my kid.

Worse, when she was two or three, I gave up on all forms of punishment.

“If you don’t spank her,” other, well-meaning parents would tell me, “how will she learn?”

I’m a professor at a university. I would sometimes blank out here, considering how this concept would transfer to my classroom. If I don’t smack you in the head, how will you ever learn that correlation is not causation?

I mean, it’s a tempting thought.

“What do you do when she has a fit?” another parent asked me once. (For those of you who don’t live in the South, fit is Arkansas for tantrum.)

“I put her in her room,” I said. The kid was maybe four at this point. “I tell her she can come out when she calms down.”

“Well, what kind of a punishment is that! It’s toys and books and all kinds of games in there!”

“I’m not trying to punish her, though,” I pointed out. “What do you do when you’re angry?”

The other parent stared at me.

“I mean, don’t you take a walk or read a while or dig in the garden? You don’t hurt yourself to make yourself stop feeling angry, do you?”

“So you don’t spank her at all? Ever?”

It always came back to that.

“Kids just need a good butt-whupping, sometimes! If you don’t put the fear of God in’em, how will they learn to respect authority?”

And that, of course, was the crux.

Because, in fact, I was raising my child to respect authority. Real authority.

Not the authority of the fist (or the belt). Not the authority of “do what I say because I’m bigger than
you,” but the authority of reason: of truth and knowledge.

My child was not just allowed to talk back and to argue. She was expected to.

From the time she was a toddler, she was encouraged to question my rules and her father’s rules, to argue with us if she thought our rules were unreasonable.

When she was nine, she came from the bathroom, toothbrush in hand, and said, “But why should I have to brush my teeth, Mama? Isn’t it my body? Didn’t you always say I could do whatever I wanted to with my own body?”

Deeply amused, I nevertheless refuted her with the argument that not brushing would lead to cavities, and she hated having her teeth drilled, and so – The good thing about raising a reasoning child is that they respond to reason.

What I did not do, what I stopped doing when she was two or three, was punish her.

I never hit her. But early on, I came to the decision that punishment was not just counter-productive, it was unreasonable. Harming a child to make it better makes no sense. If you want to stop a behavior, find a way to stop that behavior. Find a way by working with the child, though, not by hurting the child.

For instance: if the child keeps forgetting to brush her teeth, talk to the child about why she’s forgetting, and then if she’s just forgetting because she’s six, maybe say, “All right. We’ll make a chart. We’ll work on reminding you, and putting a star up every day that you remember. Yay us!”

For instance: if the child is not doing his share of the housework, talk to him. Discuss why everyone needs to do their share, and what happens when everyone does not. Discuss what has to be given up, if people don’t do their part. (This is not punishment; this is a logical consequence.) Ask whether he would rather have this logical consequence or do his share of the work. Let him make the decision, and then – without anger or shoutyness or any sort of guilt-tripping – follow through on his decision.

A specific example of this. Suppose the child’s share of the housework is doing the laundry. Suppose he has not been doing the laundry. You say, “Okay. If you can’t get the laundry done, then I’ll have to do it. But this means I can’t go to your swim meet this weekend. (Or take you hiking, or to the movies, or some other pleasant thing the child wants to have happen, and – this is important – something that would actually free up some of your hours. This can’t be seen by the child as some fake penalty you’re imposing, so choose carefully.) And you must not relent and do the thing. Do the laundry instead of the thing, even if you really want to attend the swim meet.

It’s even better if you can get the logical consequences to follow from the thing itself – not doing the laundry to equal no clean clothing, for instance. But that only works if everyone in the household is doing their own laundry.

The important part of this No Punishment philosophy is its end.

And its end makes all the difference. When you raise children with beatings and with punishment, what you are raising is obedient children, who do what they are told because they fear their parents.

When you raise children without punishment, what you are raising is adults, who act right because acting right is the reasonable thing to do.



Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. She has published short fiction in Strange Horizons and The Future Fire, as well as in the recent feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres. She blogs at delagar.

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  1. I came to this same conclusion when my oldest daughter was about the same age, for many of the same reasons. I also came to realized that my tendency to punish, and the degree of punishment, depended a lot more on my mood than on what “crime” she’d actually committed. Given that it’s not my kids’ job to guess my mood and behave accordingly, I decided the whole concept of punishment as a means of instilling morals was pretty flawed.

  2. Hooray! I lived in fear growing up. What I learned was to understand who had the most power in a situation, how they were likely to hurt me, and how to read their moods. Then as a young adult I had to teach myself how to think through consequences for other people and to understand how to work out situations for myself based on something other than figuring out what wouldn’t lead to me getting hurt. So it was a double whammy. My childhood was miserable, and I actually had to mature later.

  3. Good post! My wife and I were huge fans of setting limits and discussing them as much as the age of our children allowed. And why wouldn’t a parent want their child to fully understand why and how they’re making decisions that affect their lives? And it’s modeling rational thinking to someone who’s learning how to navigate the world from your example!

  4. This is our approach as well. I feel like punishment has more to do with parental vengeance than anything to do with teaching a child (“vengeance” may be too strong a word, but whatever the more mundane equivalent of that idea is). If our job is to teach kids, punishment is an obstacle to their learning. How many kids are actually thinking about what they did wrong when they’ve been punished rather than thinking about how hurt and angry they are about the punishment?

  5. “….thinking about how hurt and angry they are about the punishment?” Yes, this. The only consequence most children learn from being punished is to resent and be angry at those who have punished them. They may or may not learn to avoid getting caught at doing whatever it is they were punished for. They seldom (and I speak as a child who was frequently punished) learn correct behavior from the punishment. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  6. I never saw a benefit in teaching obedience. I don’t want my children to behave because they fear punishment, or worse, me, I want them to learn to make healthy, good choices on their own. You don’t do that through punishment, you do that by showing them that you respect them.

  7. Typo on second to last paragraph: “And its end is makes all the difference.” This brings the credibility of the author into play. I am wondering if this author is educated and/or knows what he/she is talking about.

  8. When I was pregnant with my first, the nytimes had an article about how these two different parenting styles you’re describing are class-based. Many upper middle class kids are taught to question authority. Their houses are baby proofed and they’re allowed full exploration. There’s no spanking. Our whole environments are safer and we are allowed more questioning and exploration. It is a privilege as babies but also as adults. Which is cause and which effect when parents aren’t the only authority figures?

  9. Hi, Nicoleandmaggie: Yes! I have little doubt class enters into this to some extent. I know the students at my working class university have, almost invariably, come from homes that spank, and from parents that don’t allow argument or any sort of disobedience (not to them and not to their teachers, and in many cases not to *any* adult).

    This is a self-perpetuating cycle, which is one of the points I’m hinting at with this essay: if you raise your children to be obedient children, they will obey you (obviously); but they will also be fair game for anyone else. That is, they’ll be obedient children for their bosses, too, and their husbands, and the police, and whoever else wants to push them around.

    The upper classes, as you note, do not raise their children this way. We might consider why.

  10. Just some remarks:
    I generally agree with this style and the method.
    But it’s not a panacea.
    First, it gets much harder when there’s more than one kid. How is it fair that the trip to the zoo got cancelled because your sibling didn’t do their job?
    Second, it doesn’t always work with non-neurotypical children.

    1. I agree with your remarks, Gilliell and would add — My kid is neurotypical and talking to him about his behavior doesn’t always work. His teachers experience the same thing with him. I try to use a positive reward/consequence structure, and often that works, but sometimes I just take away electronics and TV. In my book, those things are luxuries that you get when you’ve met all of your responsibilities and followed the rules of my house. If you break the rules, particularly in an egregious way, sorry, you don’t get to play video games that night. Of course, he’s 10. So I approach him differently than I do his 3 year old sister.

  11. But then there’s the question, when people who are trapped in the lower classes do question authority, what do they get from that? It’s easy to say that to escape from lower SES backgrounds we have to act like people from upper SES backgrounds, but when society is stratified like it is, there’s a danger in that. https://medium.com/p/a5e5f4e9132f

    In middle school I remember very well other kids whose parents didn’t raise holy hell getting detention or even suspensions for things that I could get away with impunity. Talking back to teachers. Reading books about witchcraft. Even making an innocuous pun on a teacher’s last name. It’s not just parents enforcing these strictures. Society treats us differently based on our skin color and who our parents are and whether or not we’re in the AT program.

  12. Well, I’m talking about a revolution.

    I stopped punishing my kid. I know that the police and teachers and bosses that our kids encounter do still believe in punishment — my kid had to deal with teachers who believed in punishment, and since she had been raised to argue, that certainly got her in trouble, more than once.

    She did not, however, get more trouble from me when this happened. Instead, we discussed what had happened and how she might better deal with the situation next time. I did not, that is, ever agree that she needed punishment for arguing with her teacher, or for discussing forbidden subjects (like evolution, once, or why Columbus was not a good guy another time).

    Do we think that teachers and the police and administrator — that society in general — should be punishing children? (I’ll tell you up front I don’t.) It’s not how I run my classroom, and I don’t think it’s how classrooms should be run. In the classroom, as well as in the family, true authority should be how you keep respect. My students as well as my kid are free to question me, and when I’m wrong I admit it and we work it out.

    I’ve heard the arguments — “Better I beat my kid now than the police beat him later.” But that’s a flawed argument, I think. Better you respect your child and teach him to be an adult who can make the right decisions. Better our schools and our teachers treat our children like the citizens they are, so that they grow into the citizens they are, and not serfs.

  13. And yes, I agree it’s harder when you’ve got more than one child. There’s another argument for having only one child! (I’m joking, I’m joking!)

    But it’s not impossible. Every situation gets harder the more people you add to your life. You negotiate. You work it out.

    As to punishing children who are not neurotypical, I am not an expert in that field, but does punishment work with non-neurotypical children? That seems unlikely to me, I have to say.

  14. From where I sit, I absolutely agree that punishment, particularly of children, rarely works as intended and is never the best choice. What I’d like to mention is that no matter what a parent, or anyone else, does or doesn’t do, every child is a unique human, and some of them, for reasons that are not clear, turn out to be decent, rational people and some don’t. Setting a good example of rational behavior, fairness, and kindness is always good and will have some effect on the child, but it’s not enough to guarantee any particular qualities in the eventual adult. So if your child raised in a loving, rational home with only the best of examples turns out to be a person you can’t even like, much less understand, it’s probably not because you did something wrong.

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