Punishment, Power and Discipline: How not to be an Authority with Kids.

Walking through Target yesterday I heard childish laughter, caught a glimpse of a girl darting around a corner somewhere in the “Electronics” isle, and heard a very angry male voice: “Come here. Come here right now.”

The girlish laughter continued unabated. Five minutes later, over in “Pain Relief” I saw the same girl followed by a man with a beard in his fifties pushing a nearly full cart and heard the same harsh: “Stop that. Come back here.” I was close enough to see his red face.

When I stopped for aspirin, he walked past me down the isle in pursuit nearly yelling: “You think I won’t punish you for this, don’t you! You think there are no consequences! You’ll see. Just wait.” I could hear no change in the girl’s behavior, and by the time I got to “Check Out,” she was still acting as if she were playing tag, and he looked and sounded frustrated—quite mad, actually.

In this dramatic example of adult powerlessness, clearly the man’s authority is shot and getting it back will be very difficult. How do adults get themselves into this? One can almost feel his ambivilence between loving and punishing. By three in the afternoon, his strategy is bankrupt, he is stuck, and the girl is boundaryless.

Later, on the Psychology Today site I read:

“An eye for an eye is one of the strongest human instincts, but reciprocating harm is not always the best course of action. Punishment sometimes works to condition people not to repeat misdeeds, and threats of negative repercussions can act as disincentives, but our ability to rise above our base instinct for revenge and judge each situation objectively and with an eye toward rehabilitation is one of the highest achievements of humanity and of civilization.”

Visiting schools, I see that our civilization is clearly still groping toward better ways. Much of what I see feels like cops and robbers, and nobody is winning. When I hear the expression: “I am going to give you a consequence,” I cringe a little, because in that sentence, consequence is a euphemism for punishment. Children read this pulling of punches as a weakness in adult authority, and it causes a kind of insecurity.

Our culture got off on the wrong foot somehow. From a child’s point of view an adult is, of course, an authority—on everything. That is the default mode for a child. Our job is just not to blow it. So how is it that we so often do?

What is your strategy for making sure that our children become responsible, respectful members of a community?

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14 thoughts on “Punishment, Power and Discipline: How not to be an Authority with Kids.

  1. Thanks for this discussion topic Rick. And wow it is a tough one because we have to be careful not to judge what someone else values when we delve into this. When my son Max was 2, his speech was delayed and so he talked steadily but we could not understand a single word. Max became so frustrated that we couldn’t understand and he would sometimes just “flip”. My default was to then “flip”. Which of course did not bode well. I overused time out. In fact in hindsight I would never use time out for any behaviour unless it was self chosen. Thank heaven the volatile outbursts didn’t last long because after about 2 weeks of being exasperated and one afternoon when Max was absolutely distraught, my husband reached out and held onto him – just hugged him without words. Max went limp and became a puddle of tears. I sat down with them and said to Max, “You must be so frustrated.” It was through that commiseration and what my husband discovered was actually called time-in, that we finally all connected with what was going on. I do not remember one more outburst after that and our 15 year old Max is and has been a most amazing responsible fella that we have great respect for. Now I realize that this is just one instant but I am grateful that we learned to just pause, commiserate and communicate.

  2. Hi Rick,

    This is a great post and its a topic that I’ve been struggling with all week in a series of posts that I’ve been writing. I believe that, while we lament the fact that kids are no longer respectful and empathic (not sure if there was ever a golden age of respect and empathy among youngsters!), we as adults are becoming less respectful of them.

    There isn’t a whole lot about schools these days, for example, that resonates with what we know kids need to grow into healthy and well-adjusted adults. Oh, they may be doing better on tests, but are they doing better on being kids?

    There was likely a back story to the lives of the characters in your shopping anecdote; nevertheless, for me, it is just another example of how we may be losing sight of the importance of nurturing those things that are essential to growth and development. Laughter is a natural thing. It’s difficult to stop once it begins in earnest. Encouraging it, on the other hand, is something that is intentional!

    Thanks for this. My own reflections can be found at http://www.teachingoutloud.org

    Got ya bookmarked!

  3. Great story, Ellyn. You invented an important technique: “Time in!” Interesting that we raise kids as we manage our judicial system (“Time out” being “little jail sentence”). Ostracizing is even a natural consequence for behavior that is beyond the pale, but we are raising little children, for heaven’s sake. The idea that holding them tight is “positive reinforcement for bad behavior” is connecting a good idea to the wrong situation. But it does take a cognitive leap to change our behavior. Thank you.

  4. Stephen, I love what you say. Yes, I know that if school focused on “better at being kids” (actually better at being fully human), we would be graduating more competent workers, citizens, and students as well. I would quibble with your use of empathy. It is popular to talk as if we should be trying to give kids empathy. Actually, children naturally have empathy by the age of two, the project is to work with that empathy to build emotional intelligence. As you point out, there is plenty of research that shows that EQ is more predictive of success than IQ.

  5. These are really great comments/insights. I appreciate reading the thoughts of others on the subject of parenting. I could easily agree on a good number of points made here but I think what is most profound for me is the statement Ellyn made that “we have to be careful not to judge what someone else values.” There are so many instances both in my former life as a single woman and as a mother and grandmother today that I have judged someone else for their methods of discipline. In my vast wealth of acquired knowledge (ha ha ha), I’m more convinced that different children have different needs. Discipline, readjustment, redirecting… whatever you call it is contingent upon the temperament of the child. I was raised by very strong, southern, black women and there was NO questioning what they did, how they did it or even why. There was no room for discussion or negotiation… EVER! To even entertain my wildest imaginings of expressing my “individuality,” was unacceptable. But then I was a child that didn’t push the envelope on things. I was of the temperament that I could be told something and that was it. I didn’t even like getting “the look” from Gramma or Mommy. Well, I have five children and they are ALL completely different from me AND from one another. I had to learn them and what motivates them to do or not do. Yes, it’s a big job but it was/is necessary for their successful growth and development. It also speaks to the parents’ commitment to loving and accepting the child just as he is rather than trying to make him into something he isn’t because it’s easier for parenting. So whereas I used to scowl at the parents who didn’t employ swift corrective measures in handling their rebellious little individuals, I am much more careful not to judge them for the way they choose to address those challenges of parenting them.

  6. The challenge for me has always been coming up with the logical consequences when they are really required and figuring out when a straight out punishment is deserved. I continue to find myself lost in this quandary. With a teenager, a textbook one at that, and a very headstrong one, the challenge becomes even greater. I look forward to people weighing in on the teen discipline dilemma.

  7. Hi again Rick,

    Yes, I agree with you on the empathy piece. We were just talking about that yesterday at school. I also believe that it is a natural thing, as so many who write about EQ hold.

    So, how do we continue to nurture that sense of empathy in institutions (school, being one) where there is a constant clash between individualism, on the one hand, and our apparent desire to grow caring and sensitive communities?

  8. It’s important to set boundaries, and then be consistent with all consequences – rewards and censures. We tried to consistently remind our kids of what the behavior expectations were for various places, and then praise them for doing well. This seems to have served us in good stead.

    When I became a teacher, I employed the same strategy. Whether it was with my youngest first graders, or my oldest middle schoolers, I’d remind them of my behavior expectations before we went anywhere, or even did group activities in the classroom. I taught in a Catholic school where I was often the cantor for Mass, which meant that I was in front of all the school’s students for a period of time, rather than sitting with my class to monitor their behavior. We created a form of sign language that I used – I’d pat my heart to show them that I was proud of them (they were making my heart go pitty-pat), or tap near my eye (I saw their misbehavior and we’d be talking about it during recess) or a beckoning finger (you need to come and stand near me right now). Though this sign language started with my youngest kids, I found it highly effective with the older kids, too, especially because the older kids really hate to be embarrassed by getting called out. More often than not, other teachers would marvel at the behavior of my students, and wonder how I managed them. The truth was, they were managing themselves.

    I think many parents want to be their child’s best friend, instead of an “authority”, as if being an authority is always a negative. If you teach your child what behavior expectations look like, they’ll learn what the boundaries are. Of course they will push those boundaries, and we want them to do so – they need to learn what happens when they extend beyond them. Sometimes the boundaries will give a little, and sometimes they’ll break free and fall; we learn from those mistakes, and that’s a good thing.

    If we teach children that there are no boundaries, that they can behave in any manner they choose, we are setting them up for failure as adults. We don’t want to work with them, socialize with them, or be around them. If we teach children that there are nothing but boundaries, we also set them up for failure. They may be unwilling, even unable, to take risks, such as standing up for themselves, or solving confrontational problems. We must teach children what reasonable expectations look like, and how to behave within those parameters – when it is okay to get a little crazy and when it’s unsafe; when and how it’s okay to argue with an “authority” figure, and when it’s not; when it’s okay to treat adults as peers and when it’s not. These parameters must change as they grow – “crazy” behavior in a three-year-old does not look the same as “crazy” behavior in a twelve-year-old. They must also learn that behaviors have consequences – read results. Bursting boundaries can result in negative consequences, which get worse over time, while behaving in socially acceptable ways reaps rewards. Rewards must be intrinsic, so that the kids feel that they are appreciated for their efforts and achievements. With consistent expectations and consistent intrinsic rewards, you get kids who are self-confident and able to set and maintain their own boundaries, or deal with the consequences.

  9. The story made me consider timing rather than style of authority. Growing up, becoming an adult, has something to do with learning that the consequences of our actions are not always immediate. On the other hand, children first learn about the world through the experiences of immediate cause and effect. A time out or a hug delivered right after an action fits a child’s way of learning. An explanation of what may or may not happen in the future is speaking to an adult’s way of learning.

    We parents frustrate ourselves by externalizing to our kids our internal dialogue about how to handle a situation. I think extensive verbalizing about what might happen is interpreted by our kids as nothing is going to happen. And, if we do actually deliver consequences later on, our younger children may lack the developmental ability to meaningfully tie that consequence to their original action. The kid’s take away from that scenario is that parents are unpredictable, and therefore there is little relationship between what they do and a parent’s approval or reprimand.

    At what age is which child capable of getting a useful lesson from delayed consequences? I don’t know. However, I believe a bias for clear and immediate responses better serves our kids to make sense of their place in their community.

  10. Oh this is just a wonderful mosaic of a discussion – I love it! Thank you for facilitating it Rick.
    I want to draw attention to Susi’s thoughts surrounding parenting teens, because all to often it is easy to fall into a punishment mode with them. As I sit here pondering this on a daily basis with a 14 and 15 year old in the house, I am drawn to the two ideas that play a huge role in my life as a parent of teens. I like to take the “I” approach and try to look at my behaviour before I look at theirs. Firstly, I want them to know that I like being with them – even though I know that they don’t always want to be with me. That’s okay, that’s normal. Secondly, keeping the line of communication open is of utmost importance. Like many parents, I spend hours driving my teens and their friends around to events and watching them play sport or be involved in music… I smile lots and enjoy each moment commenting on each one, looking them in the eye when they tell me something and marvelling at them. I bite my tongue a lot and only offer advice when asked for it or when I deem it as absolutely necessary for the teen’s safety or well being. I give them my undivided attention so that I am not multi-tasking while they are telling me something. This helps to let them know that I am truly interested in what they have to say and who they are. Are they still going to pull some knucklehead move? Yes – they’re teenagers, they’re learning. But with care, so far, they tell me when they have made a poor decision and either how they are going to handle it or if they need help.


  11. I think the basic principle applies across all human relations. We are all disciplining each other. Often the difficulty that I face — say — with my boss is complicated by an information gap. The gap makes it hard for us to sympathize with eachother’s situation. Our ability to discipline eachother improves as we demonstrate credibly a willingness to close that gap. And the loyalty between us grows as we seek to do a better and better job of telling the truth. Our ritual relationships help to some extent by providing what I’d call an “authority buffer” — a bit of leeway in which one party in the relationship, under certain circumstances, is able to persuade without closing the gap. A parent who has built up this buffer through a healthy relationship can occasionally say “because I said so.” A boss that knows I know s/he treats me well can say, “I’m gonna need to over-rule you on that.” The child that has persuaded her/his parents that s/he is not an incorrigible manipulator can persuade by crying or stomping her/his feet. But, this is an endowment — this liscense to occasionally say “no” — and there are usually strategies that allow you to either invest it for a return or to avoid “no” altogether. I just think about how I like to be communicated with, and someone telling me “no,” does not elicit a positive response. The number one error that I see parents around me making — and which any teacher able to last more than a month rarely makes — is the over use of “no;” especially (and this gets back to the department store story) in situations where the no-er is unprepared to accommodate the worst-response scenario.

  12. It’s all very complicated yet simple at the same time. It’s complicated because of the range of responses to the range of behaviors within a range of circumstances, etc, etc, etc. It’s simple because, at the heart of it all, we just have to be present to the current needs of a human relationship. From the outside this can take a myriad of forms and look very inconsistent. From the inside point of view, my kids’ or students’ for example, there is a consistency of truthfulness and responsibility. Ultimately I’m there to hold them accountable in whatever way is called for and they appreciate it. This is the source of my authority.

    I don’t want to create the impression that it’s all a piece of cake — in fact, I have made many mistakes. Looking back on what didn’t work often leads me to a breakdown in presence. We were not acting as the circumstances called for because we weren’t paying attention.

  13. My goodness I am so happy to have found this forum for discussing parenting. I believe that as far as punishment goes it is neccessary sometimes but painful for the child and the adult. For instance, my 11 year old and my 14 year old were in a bitter disagreement over shared computer time. Somehow they dragged me into it. My solution was: work it out or you are both without computer for five days. They continued to argue vehemently. The peace and quietude of my home is something I value greatly. They lost computer priveleges for five days. Punishment? Yes. Options given? Yes. Educated in confict management, they are. I have seen this argument come close to knocking over my computer tower and I cannot afford to buy another one.

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