Does punishment always work best when a compassionate, curious exploration of behavior is available? Many of us grow up with an understanding that when we do something wrong we should be held responsible. Does that necessarily mean we need to be punished for it?
I grew up in a family where punishment was what happened when you did something wrong.
That probably doesn’t sound strange. It wasn’t cruel or unusual and I’m not talking about abuse.
I’m highlighting that from an early age I was instilled with the idea of: “Screw up, and you face the consequences.” Even if you knew and understood that what you did was wrong, even if you did something really great afterwards—you still needed to take your punishment.
As a therapist, especially a therapist for men and fathers, I’m not arguing against helping people understand that for everything they do there’s a consequence, whether a positive or negative one: there is a reaction to each action. It’s part of learning to take responsibility.
What struck me as I became first a teacher and then a counselor was that there were other ways to learn a lesson. You didn’t always need to be punished.
I learned how the “wrongs” others did didn’t even always need to be pointed out.
The Strengths Perspective
In learning what actually gets results I discovered that it wasn’t a requirement that every bad word, every disrespectful act, every breaking of the rules be directly addressed.
It took a while for this to sink in for me. I was still stuck on, “If we didn’t point out all the wrongs then how would the person know that their behavior had been unacceptable?”
Easy, said wiser people than I. It’s called the “strengths perspective.” The crucial idea here is that you look at all the things that were done “right” and you talk about those. You highlight those, you explore those, you investigate those.
- George, who had been seeing me for anger issues for about seven months, came to a session disappointed in himself (and me) because that week he had gotten so angry at a guy who had made a pass at his girlfriend that he “saw red” and started to leave his apartment to confront the other guy with the intention of putting him in the hospital. Through his girlfriend begging him to stop my client was able to stay home instead (and later talk about it in therapy). He was angry that his trigger could still get so hot so fast, but we were able to discuss how a year ago nothing his girlfriend said would have gotten him to stay home.
- Simon was telling me how his fourteen-year-old son walked out of the kitchen for five minutes while he was trying to talk to him about how he’s treating his sister. Simon was furious that his kid walked out; I was impressed that the kid came back.
George wanted to punish himself for still “losing it” and Simon thought his son should be punished for disrespect.
Because I grew up with the idea that bad behavior means that you must be punished I was able to empathize with both these feelings.
What’s the Goal?
But what did these men want to accomplish? Was it more important that the bad behavior be regulated, or that the behavior would be different in the future?
Once we shifted the conversation to explore how Simon had gained enough respect with a teen who, after some initial cooling off, could hear from his father all the things he didn’t want to talk about, Simon was able to do some actual parenting. He could learn that he could be effective as a father while allowing his son to have his own time out.
Next time he could work this in: “Kid, before we talk about this I want you go to your room or sit outside for a few minutes. I’m going to do the same because you’re probably going to get pretty upset.”
George and I learned a lot by focusing on how he was able to stop himself. We then could create a better plan for future times.
Caveat: I want to stop here for one quick second. Actual violence, illegal, dangerous behavior—yes, confront it head on. Hold your child, yourself, or others accountable and don’t dance around that.
But I see people constantly moving away from the progress that is made in order to focus on something more primal, and I think this has to do with pride and vulnerability.
Let’s take bullying for example. Many of the responses I hear about bullying are often from dads who love their child unconditionally, but feel, “It happened to me, why shouldn’t he have to go through it as well?”
Or how many times have I heard from a parent, “If I talked to my father they way he did…”
We carry so much anger and hurt from how we were treated that it seems outlandish that we would let a younger generation “get away” with something.
We disregard the research that tells us that physical discipline and emotional berating stays with us and leads to higher levels of depression and anxiety. We say, “Well, I turned out ok.”
But did we?
Why are we so sure that not ferreting out every bad behavior will lead to a child who is spoiled and entitled?
Isn’t there something in between?
To Punish or To Teach?
Now I am just as annoyed as others by the kids who seem to “get away” with everything. The ones who have parents that seem to allow flagrant disrespect towards them and other adults and peers. But constantly picking out what your child does that is “wrong” will backfire. It will build up resentment and poor self esteem and lead to a sad, scared, or anxious adult.
The answer for every individual person and family can’t be spelled out in a blog post because there are so many answers. Only a parent can truly know his or her child, and only that child can truly know him or herself.
How attuned are you to what your child can hear?
- Do they need to hear some praise from you before being able to handle some constructive criticism?
- Are they secure enough in themselves so that you can be more direct?
- Are you responding to them as you wish YOU were responded to or as your child needs to be responded to?
They’re going to be different from their brother or sister who may need to hear things in a totally different way.
Because, at the end of the day, you probably want to teach, not simply punish. You want some behaviors to diminish and others to increase.
To Teach AND To Explore?
Let’s distinguish between some behaviors:
Running into traffic: Absolutely needs to stop right now. No good reason for doing that.
Talking back to an aunt: Maybe take some time to explore. Is this a pattern? Is it only with Aunt Patty? Did something happen to them, like being picked on at school, that led to an unexpected behavior? What triggered this language? This may call for a consequence, or it may call for a better understanding of your child and the child’s better understanding of him or herself.
I can already hear people jumping down my throat:
“Absolutely not! If she’s going to talk to her aunt like that, what is she going to say in school or to a stranger? What happens when she says it to the wrong person and she gets hurt? I’m not going to have a child talk like that to anyone—this needs to be nipped in the butt right now. I didn’t raise my child to be like that!”
I hear you. I was raised that way. But it doesn’t actually have the effect that you want. You need to examine what about that behavior gets to YOU before you can effectively be a parent to your child.
Is this about you? Are you worried about how you’ll be seen and judged? Have you been talked down to by others and does hearing your child do it trigger something in you?
In other words, what’s going to have your desired effect: a consequence for the immediate behavior or exploring where it’s coming from and why?
All parents need to make this decision for themselves and it’s an ongoing decision. It’s a different one for each circumstance and for each child. One decision results in a lot of anger and one results to a greater understanding. One is spurred on by anger and hurt and the other is spurred on by curiosity and compassion.
Both, though, come from love.
Often, there’s little question that adults I work with love their children. Unfortunately, love as the motivation isn’t enough. You will greatly benefit from knowing yourself, knowing your motivations and knowing your intentions.
You may discover, both for yourself and for your children, that just looking at the behavior and saying, “This has to stop!” won’t be as beneficial as finding out what is motivating that behavior in the first place.
Photo: Curtis MacNewton/Flickr