A Punishing Regime for Children- Is it Really Effective?

Asks retired head teacher Hermione Gerry

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Hermione Gerry

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Attitudes to child rearing and parenting have over the centuries in Western Civilisation and across the social divide seldom stayed static from one generation to another. Very often these attitudes will have been derived from Religious, especially Christian, beliefs. Of these, the one philosophy which has had the most damaging effect on future generations has been that of the Doctrine of Original Sin. This philosophy lead to the notion that children are born into the world evil, and that in order for them to grow up ‘civilised’ those adults responsible for their up-bringing, had literally to ‘beat the Hell out of them’. Understandably this led to harsh punishment, or as some would see it, discipline. It is almost unbelievable, but there are recorded instances where a child was beaten so violently that they died of their injuries.

In many people’s eyes punishment and discipline appear to be one and the same. I would strongly argue that this is not the case. Writing as I am from many years of experience involved in the care of young children, I believe that all children need discipline but that punishment needs to be kept to a minimum.

So what do I mean by discipline? I mean that the adults involved in the up-bringing of the child have to be able to set out their views of acceptable behaviour. “No” does not have to be a dirty word even if the child concerned presses all the emotional buttons to try to make the concerned adult believe so! Don’t worry, the odd tantrum in a young child being told “No more Ceebeebes” or “No more sweets” etc. is perfectly normal even if very frustrating for the adult concerned!

Discipline, to me, means laying down boundaries of acceptable behaviour, what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, setting out the four walls if you like, but, and this can be the hard part, sticking to them: even at the end of a trying and emotionally draining day! Children are adept at pushing the boundaries, which probably for their development and emotional growth, is a healthy thing. However they need to know where those boundaries are and also who is in charge. This gives them a sense of security, leading to happier and more contented children. To some this may sound illogical. Surely if you give your child what it wants, it will be happier? But no, it does not work like that! The more they are able to bully their parents/carers to give them what they want (not need), the more demanding and discontented they become.

In an ideal world home and school, parents, carers and all those adults involved in the up-bringing of the child will be united in their approach to discipline, but in the real world this is not possible. Do not despair! Children are very adaptable and will adjust their behaviour to different situations. Ironically home is normally and ideally should be, the place where they feel confident to test the boundaries. Very tiring on the parents, but better that way than behaving angelically at home and appallingly when at school or out with friends. The badly and maybe aggressively behaved child will not be welcomed for play-dates and so will be excluded. This is very sad especially as the reason for the unacceptable behaviour is probably not of its making in the first place. At school their behaviour will disrupt the class making teaching very difficult, the child gets a bad name and more than likely than not be in constant trouble. (There are medical conditions eg Autism, which will cause challenging behaviour. This is not what I am talking about here).

As has been said, discipline to me is setting down boundaries to enable the child to understand what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, what is socially acceptable and what is not, learning to be polite (please and thank you go a long way to helping children to become socially acceptable, as does a welcoming smile!).

Plainly the significant adults in a child’s life are very important, not least because they are the models upon which the child will be modelling its behaviour. Their example will play a huge part in teaching the child how to behave. The expression “Do not do as I do, do as I say” does not work! When children have firm but fair boundaries, consistently upheld, and adults who treat them with respect and consideration, and act as goods role models, there is in my experience little need to have to re-enforce the discipline through punishment, and in my experience there is no place for corporal punishment

I am not saying that there is absolutely no place for punishment but children need to feel that it is reasonable and fair. Some children will push the boundaries more than others-they are after all adults in the making and their genetic makeup, as well as their environment, will play a part in how they behave. There will be some children who are timid and some who are more resilient. The timid ones may become crushed emotionally, growing up to lack confidence and a feeling of self-esteem, and the resilient ones become tougher making them much harder to deal with.
So what do I feel about the role and emotional effects of excessive punishment? All I can say is that the most difficult and behaviourally challenging children I have cared for have been those whose parents believed that the only way to bring up a child ‘properly’ was through the use of punishment. The punishment took many forms, both physical and emotional, but either way lead to unhappy, angry and mixed up children trying to make sense of their world. Sadly more often than not, this approach produced the type of behaviour which will lead to more punishment, thus reinforcing children’s negative beliefs of themselves. I do not believe that any adult would be able to claim that they always enjoyed being told that they are stupid, wrong, worthless etc., so why should a child? By the time that the child is an adult it will have internalised all these negative attitudes of itself, and however much it is later able to recognise & understand why it feels as it does, will find it almost impossible to eradicate the feelings of self-doubt.

There are both tough and timid people and so not all children will respond to punishment in the same way. From my observations it is the sensitive, nervous, and timid ones who later develop emotional problems: full of self- doubt and lacking in confidence and the stronger, tougher ones who learn anger and resentment and carry on doing what they know to be unacceptable behaviour. So does reliance on punishment work to eradicate the unacceptable behaviour? Plainly not.

Hermione Gerry
Co-founder Prospect House School

February 6, 2013