Perils of Punishment

Most parents today believe in punishment. If a child does something wrong, you have to teach him a lesson. Punishment may be the great educator. But all too often, the child simply refuses to learn. In fact, he gets worse.

Here's a common scenario: A nine year old boy, call him Joe,* has been acting up over the last month. He refuses to do chores, yells at his mother, sometimes swears at her. He's been getting into trouble in school, too. His teacher has called home twice to complain, and has threatened suspension.

With each new misdeed, Joe's punishment has grown. First he was grounded for a week. Then two. Then a month. He's lost the right to play outside, lost the use of his beloved video games, lost TV. He now feels that he has nothing to lose. And he's full of resentment.

Joes isn't a bad kid. In the rare moments when he isn't feeling angry at his parents, his sister, or his teacher, he likes to give hugs and to get them. But now Joes' mother is so angry at her son that she seems to have forgotten how much she really loves him. She starts to tell me about Joe's problems, but almost immediate turns to him, her voice shaking, "Why? Why don't you listen?"

From my vantage point, it seems obvious that Joe and his mother are caught in a negative spiral, being sucked down into a whirlpool of hurt feelings. The more Joe feels punished, the more he wants to strike back. The more punishment she metes out, the more Joes' mom resents having to be the "heavy," the guiltier she feels, and the more she misses the son she loves. And, the angrier she gets.

Negative whirlpools are easy to fall into. Here are some ways to climb out:

First, and most important, remind yourself about the things you love about your child. When a child is acting bad, that's the time he most needs to be reminded that he himself isn't bad, only his behavior is. When he's feeling the least lovable, that's when he most needs to be reminded that he is loved.

Next, make punishments shorter. There has to be some non-punishment time in between punishments. Make excuses for positive experiences. Make yourself notice when your child is being reasonable, pleasant, agreeable, responsible - even if only for a few moments. Catch your child being good. Make sure your child knows that you noticed.

Be willing to let some things slide. Instead of grounding your child for being rude, it might be enough to simply label the behavior. "That's talking back, and I don't like it. I know you can be polite." Keep your eye on the long-term goal: your child, reasonable, polite, and in good self-control. Share your vision with your child.

The thing about negative spirals is that they aren't that hard to turn around. If you catch yourself, and make a conscious decision, a negative spiral can turn around the other way, with positive feelings fueling good behavior, reaping praise, building realistic self-esteem, and inspiring even more desired behavior. It's good to remember that such change is possible, especially if you find yourself punishing more and more, and liking your child less and less.

*Joe, like nearly all the children in my blogs, is really a composite of many children I've seen over the years. I can see "Joe" and his mother a few times a week!