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