Thursday, January 17, 2008

Consequence or Punishment?

I did something last week that is so uncharacteristic. I grounded a member of my family. For anyone who knows me, they know that I despise punishment. But I do believe in consequences. Some argue that it’s just semantics and I am masking a punishment by calling it a consequence. By definition, this can’t be so:
Consequence: Something that logically or naturally follows from an action or condition
Punishment: A Penalty imposed for wrongdoing

I have told my kids that, just because I don’t believe in punishment does not mean that I wouldn’t use it. I just don’t believe in its efficacy. As a parent, it is my job to teach my kids to become responsible, civilized and caring adults. “Punishable behaviors” are opportunities to teach important personal skills such as honesty, humility, problem-solving and mediation.

Foremost is the notion of respect. Since the first day I became a parent, almost 21 years ago, I have always tried to respect my children. During infancy, for example it meant respecting that they coveted the sensory feel of touch and the soothing sound of my voice. As toddlers, I respected their developmental need to show some control. I gave them gave them choices and I very consciously picked my battles. Being a parent is about being reasonable and teaching tolerance, it’s not about power and a misuse of authority. After all, mutual respect yields trust, faith, honesty and forgiveness. If a parent and child can have all of that in a relationship, then really, isn’t this the goal?

Enter punishment. Kids are going to break rules and they are going to do dumb stuff. We all know that as adolescents, their undeveloped brains account for a big percentage of the reason why they often find themselves doing risky behaviors. Just like us, they are going to make mistakes. They are human beings. So as their parent, I adhere to the belief that they deserve my support and not my reproach when they mess up - a timeout, no TV, no dessert, imprisonment in their room, groundings - where’s the right incentive to try to do it better next time? Is it the threat of more punishment? Or is it an understanding of personal accountability and their desire to act proactively to do it right?

When my kids were younger this was easier. Lots of times they didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, so it was my job to teach them - consequences were straightforward and sometimes not so obvious. For example, when they were fighting with their siblings, they needed to learn how to work it out. Sending them to their rooms made no sense to me (even if it would have been quieter). If they were generally misbehaving, a time-out might have been a short term solution, but what 4 year old is going to sit in a corner and truly think about why he’s there? A validation of feelings and how to deal with them the next time his “pot got stirred” seemed like a much better resolution and built interpersonal skills that could only help later on.

As they grew older I expected them to know the difference between right and wrong. Consequences. A consequence requires a dialogue, an understanding of the action and once again mutual respect. Punishment simply requires the recipient to be the powerless receptacle of the penalty. The former approach acknowledges that a behavior or action may have been wrong, but promotes a higher level of thinking and problem solving. The latter approach is an unproductive attempt to reach the real parenting goal: to prevent the behavior from happening again.

So, who acted so egregiously to warrant a “grounding” in our household? Our yellow lab, the neighborhood ambassador, and friend to all he meets. He had wandered too far afield and was picked up by a friend outside of our neighborhood a distance from our home. I guess the nature of our relationship of “owner and master” precludes any possibility of a mutually respectful relationship but I believe that he and I have some fundamental understanding - a trust that he will protect me and I will protect him. So, upholding my end of the contract, he faced one single consequence and true punishment. He is now locked up behind his electric fence indefinitely. I know it was for his own good and he left me no choice (isn’t that what punishers always say?). I guess you could argue that this was a consequence. But in my mind, as much as it breaks my heart, I can only say punishment was my only recourse.


Don Mills Diva said...

You did the right thing Leslie, you did the right thing.

wheelsonthebus said...

I guess I agree with you in theory, but in practice I have found that the only way to calm my kids down sometimes is a time out. It is not about "thinking about why he's there" but about an enforced breather when they don't know to take one themselves.

Also, the younger is bigger and stronger than the older but does not understand he is hurting his brother. The only thing I can do is give time-outs when he bites so 1) he can cool down and 2) he can realize that biting gets him removed from society.

angelastockman said...

What a thoughtful post. Since our kids were very little, my husband and I have always tried to reinforce the notion of natural consequences for their behavior. For example, when Nina was refusing to get dressed for preschool, resorting to kicking and screaming and making me late for work? I once wrapped her in her robe, put her jacket over the top of it, packed her clothes in a bag, and delivered her to her daycare provider in exactly that state. She learned she couldn't begin her day until she was dressed...and she also learned that her behavior was not going to make me late for work. I've also used time out, as Emily describes above, for reasons very similar to hers. But I see time out as a consequence as well. No one should tolerate "abuse" of any kind from any person. If a little one is hitting or biting or even screaming and yelling uncontrollably, I think it's important to draw a line and communicate the fact that others are not there to tolerate physical or verbal abuse--the real world would provide a time out as well, no? This is an interesting topic...I may blog it myself and link back to you ; )

Leslie said...

Your comments are well taken concerning the timeouts but I still have a different feeling about them.

To send a child to sit alone, separated and being singled-out because he did an unacceptable behavior still doesn't make sense to me. If a child is biting or hitting, then there is something that is causing him to do it -- even if it's something as simple as being frustrated -- I STILL believe that the better approach is to spend time with the child explaining that the behavior is not to be tolerated but to acknowledge whatever it was that got him to that point. SOMETHING got him to that breaking point..... my discipline approach was always to focus on the positive -- to acknowledge every time my kids acted positively or nicely or fairly to remind them how proud I was of them - especially when they didn't hit or bite or do something negative that they could have. The negative behaviors were reminders that we needed to work a little harder.

Everyone has to find the approach that works best for them and their kids - I don't believe there is only one way to do things - it just has to be the right way for you.

Angela - feel free to write more!! It's great food for thought...