Collateral Punishment

There is a phenomenon in parenting that I’ve come to think of as “collateral punishment”. This is a situation in which, in the course of punishing their own child for something that they have done, parents also punish a friend of theirs who has nothing to do with the behavior being addressed. Let me first be clear about what this is NOT.

Sometimes a child and their friend have, together, done something that is problematic. This is not the situation I am addressing.

Sometimes a child has a friend who encourages them to do things that they aren’t allowed to do, or that are dangerous or otherwise worrisome. This is not the sort of issue I am covering.

In both of those situations the friend is part of what concerns the parent, and a punishment that indirectly affects the friend, for example preventing their child from going to the movies with the friend, makes sense. In a collateral punishment situation the friend is completely removed from the incident the parents have decided to punish, but takes part of the brunt of the punishment anyway. Let me give a couple of examples.

When my daughter was in junior high she was an avid ballet dancer. She had invited a friend of hers to go to a ballet performance with her. The performance was by a major company in the Big City in our region, so the invitation was given to and accepted by the friend, as well as approved by the friend’s family, a month before the performance to allow us to purchase (rather pricy) tickets. The time of the performance was chosen to be convenient for the friend and her family. Three days before the performance the friend’s mum called and said that the girl was not allowed to go. Apparently she had “sassed her dad” and the parents had decided that the appropriate punishment was to take away what she was looking forward to most, which was going to the ballet with my daughter. I have no idea whether this encouraged my daughter’s friend to be more cordial to her parents, but it was devastating to my daughter, and, I felt, rather inconsiderate to us.

A year and half ago my daughter’s best friend at school moved to Big City. They iChat frequently (which has led me to think of this friend as The Disembodied Head), but they aren’t able to meet in person very often. It’s about an hour and a half trip driving or by bus, and they’re both in high school, so not every weekend is available. Get-togethers are negotiated and planned several weeks ahead, and usually mean rearranging schedules to have it work. The morning of the last planned get-together Disembodied Head texted that she had “irritated her parents” and they had decided to punish her by not letting her get together with my daughter. Once again my daughter was not part of the problem, but her unhappiness was included as part of the solution.

I’d like to make a broad suggestion to parents. Think through whether a punishment that you decide on for your child is likely to affect other people. Before you impose a punishment that does have ramifications for a friend, reflect on a couple of points. Is your child’s friend part of the problem? If yes, then including them indirectly in the punishment may well be appropriate. If the answer is, no, though, is there really no other way to communicate your point to your child? Again, maybe there really isn’t, but in that case reaching out to the friend or their family and letting them know that you regret including them in your child’s punishment would not be amiss. If you choose to punish your child’s friend without reflection or acknowledgement, you risk modeling the very behavior of thoughtless rudeness that you are punishing your child for in the first place.

featured image: signage pout by Leigh Anthony DEHANEY / zyphichore

Cerys Gruffyydd

Cerys has gone through a genetics phase (undergrad years), a biological anthropology phase (grad school years) and a Pilates & yoga teaching phase (mum years). She lives with a scientist, a teenager and a rabbit. Her quasi-secret passion is historical costuming and she can’t look at people without imagining the era in which she would like to clothe them.

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  1. Having two kids close in age and being alone with them during the week makes collateral punishment sometimes inevitable. And it is so fucking unfair on the other kid, which is why they are probably getting away with more things than they usually would.
    I try to avoid “punishment” in principle, but honestly, the natural consequences for kid A will be an unfair punishment for kid B, because as you said, they did not behave in a way that would trigger the particular consequence.
    But when I promise them a trip to the Zoo, but #1 didn’t finish her homework in the after school daycare, I can hardly say “well, stuff homework, tell your teacher we went to the Zoo instead”. So I punish the little one indirectly because she’s not going to the Zoo either. Not to mention myself, because I actually like going there, too (there are otters. Otters are cool).
    And I think there are more questions to take into account.
    How badly will it affect the innocent party? I can always postpone a trip to the Zoo. I live next to it. But even though the little one totally didn’t behave herself in the Aquarium last summer we still stayed. Because #1 was literally enchanted. It was the best thing ever for her and it would have broken her heart to leave.
    Does the punishment fit the crime? I think I can imagine situations when I would cancel long-planned activities that badly affect another friend, but honestly, they are few. Stealing the car and crashing it, maybe. But in the cases you describe it sounds more like revenge: A desire to hurt the kid in the worst way possible without actually becoming a criminal.

    1. Giliell, I think some collateral punishment is probably inevetable within a family. Like you say – if one child totally fails to perform a necessary responsibility, there’s not much that can be done. One of my most diffucult realizations early in parenthood was just how much certain discipline of a child can become punishment of the entire family!

  2. I try to think about this as much as possible, although I have definitely been known to threaten cancelling more casual events with the expectation that it becomes my son’s responsbility to explain to his friends why he chose to continue to misbehave rather than shape up and continue as planned. There is always a warning, that tends to be more along the lines of “how can we send you to someone else’s house if you can’t get yourself together”, with ample opportunity to improve and proceed as planned. I think we have hit the level of actually cancelling something once in 10 years. Likewise, we’ve had one cancellation of a last minute casual playdate because of direct physical misbehavior, which was completely understandable. Cancelling longstanding plans that are far from casual and in some cases involve significant expense and inconvenience on the part of another family is completely inexcusable to me.

  3. Oh my god, I hate collateral punishment! I’ve seen that kind of situation you’ve described. I’ve even been personally inconvenienced for it… once I had a teen volunteering for me at the library, there was some event coming up I needed help with ASAP, and she got in trouble with her parents and they punished her by telling her she couldn’t come volunteer that day (and they gave me no notice she wasn’t going to appear). I was so mad! Like, that was some serious WTF there.

  4. This is something that bothered me considerably growing up, whether I was the one being punished or I was just punished by extension (collaterally punished, to use your terminology). It’s incredibly thoughtless that parents are so caught up in their own little world that they can’t see that their kids’ friends are very real people with real feelings themselves.

    Plus, the punishment often happens without warning, and might not even be relevant to the “crime”, so it’s needlessly humiliating for the child being punished. They start to get the reputation of flaky and unreliable when sometimes they’re just at their parents’ mercy.

    I’m sure there are times when it’s inevitable (especially like Giliell mentioned, within a family) or necessary (as Em pointed out), but in general, collateral punishment is a shitty thing to do.

  5. For years, I worked in a small alternative charter school–kids who got kicked out of public school could come into our program if they were unlikely to succeed in the district’s larger alternative school. The approach we used was different and worked for some kids while the regular alternative school worked for others.

    Because enrollment in our school was optional, parents would regularly use removal from the school as a punishment if it turned out that the kid liked it. So, we would get a kid all settled in and starting to do well after just not fitting in anywhere else, and their parents would yank them out of our program and stick them into the other school as a punishment. It was insane.

    The first time it happened, I asked the parent why, and was told that they were moving the child precisely because our school was a good fit. They saw it as taking away something he liked, as if a good educational environment was equivalent to time on an Xbox. Talk about collateral punishment: the kid lost a place he liked, his new classmates and teachers had to deal with him acting up, and we lost a student who was an asset to the school.

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