Punishment Doesn’t Work

On 8th March 2018, the Australian national broadcaster (ABC) ran this story of a father punishing his son for bullying by making him run to school. I am actually appreciative that this dad took a video of him driving behind the child and posting it, so that we can learn from it.
It and the supportive responses for it, does show the failure of most of society to understand the idea of consequence. This failure is not only why our child raising has created bullies and addicts but why prisons are overflowing with recidivists. Below is my take on it.

In the ABC article, bully experts like Dr Hannah Thomas, a postdoctoral researcher at The University of Queensland, said “punitive strategies like making the boy run were an attempt to teach the child to be accountable for their actions, but they didn’t always work.”They use shame, humiliation and guilt to try to motivate change in future behaviour,” she said.”This generally never changes behaviour in the long-term. It gives the child very limited opportunity to learn and acquire new skills — i.e. ways to interact in more positive and social ways with their peers.”Dr Thomas said these kinds of strategies can also have flow-on effects.”Children who are humiliated or shamed can internalise negative feelings about themselves that hinder their healthy development,” she said.”Children misbehave as they learn and develop. They need parents to be supportive when they make mistakes and to take a practical role in teaching their children how to behave more respectfully.”
What I see is that it gets down to consequences. There are two things to know about consequences: Punishment is not a consequence of someone’s action; and all actions come with unintended consequences.
Punishment is an indirect consequence of an action, and in many cases, that ‘indirectness’ is confounded by a complexity of agendas and motivations, often to the extent that it is of no consequence at all. If anything, punishment is often a pathway to a whole complexity of unintended consequences, the least of which is that the punished get that they are responsible for other’s distress and that they can be a different type of person in the world.
In this case there was a direct consequence to the boy’s bullying, he was put off the bus. The boy would have understood the relationship.
A consequence of the complaint to the parent was that the parent went into bullying mode. It seems Dad doesn’t have a conversational relationship with his son, probably an authoritarian one. His son is learning that authoritarian method, the being a three year old for the whole of your life, that is, of course, it is signified by bullying anyone as a control mechanism, a fabulous way to teach the next generation how to be a bully.
The consequence of the bullying mode by this parent is the boy being forced to run to school.
I have no problem the boy running to school. Great thing!
However, attached to that running to school is a punishment, is a bad idea!
This is where we have to get better at thinking through about unintended consequences. If we have learnt anything by listening to each other about why we find ourselves poorly motivated around some things as adults, it gets back to the unintended consequences of, sometimes, the most trivial thing a parent has done that has been completely misunderstood by the child. The consequence of establishing for your 10 year old son that running is what you do for punishment, when you do something wrong, can be that, later on in life, you run a lot and you do nothing wrong (even though you are really an A-1 tyrant), OR you do nothing wrong (you’re a nice guy) and you don’t run (you are fat, have a chronic disease by your 40s). Ultimately this boy is on a path to being either a bully for life or a failure to take-off.

The real issue though is of parenting. Parents who are in conversation with children from the time they are in the womb, parents who are self reflective in that conversation and can acknowledge with children where they messed up as well as taking a firm and clear stand with their children, parents who are up to something bigger than themselves and their family, in life, have children who aren’t bullies and grow up to be contributors to society.

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4 thoughts on “Punishment Doesn’t Work

    • My discussion here is that punishment of any kind doesn’t work for positive behavioural change. It might work against it and in the worst cases eg imprisonment or torture, worsen behaviour. Therefore teach and empower. Design or allow consequences as teaching accountability. Empower through supporting to reconcile and recompense. In the case of danger, exclude the perpetrator but don’t expect behavioural change.

      • My interjection is that the belief that punishment works has roots in the monotheistic religious tradition so that most people that advocate this principle do not do so as the result of rational conclusions but instead to authoritarian religious systems!

      • Robert, it probably has evolutionary roots. Something like this. Originally the alpha male would be allowed to kill whoever got in his road. This style may have driven the impetuous for small family-tribes to wander out and claim territories for him. Language allowed bigger collectives but began to change the power dynamic. This would have lead to the alpha (we now recognise as psycopathic) to allow others into the punishment delivery system. The second rank would have pressure on them to deal with the alpha and the others without being killed themselves. We could say this is the early development of the political mind. From there, agreements about who can be killed and why. Simultaneously, early forms of religion, often thought based in the anxiety about death, were established. The religious mind coupled with the political mind has since been through various stages and reformations as the communities become town, become states, become nations, and now we are here in a global society. Both the religious and the political mind has developed to consider the vast complexity of humanity and our place in a physical universe. We are, almost, untethered from the psycopath. Soon, soon.

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