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?