Punishment and The Missed Opportunity for Learning (page 3)
Punishment actually undermines children’s learning about appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Instead of youngsters thinking about the behavior that caused the problem, they end up thinking resentfully about the punishment. Punishment also focuses attention on what not to do rather than teaching what to do. Young children need information about acceptable ways of behaving, and they need help in understanding why certain actions are better than others (e.g., Hart et al., 1997). In other words, they need teaching instead of punishment.
Caroline, the children’s center director, was concerned about the row of sad faces in the back of the room during afternoon choice time. It was Joanne’s policy to remove kids from play if they weren’t able to get along with others. Caroline decided to discuss this policy with Joanne.
Caroline met with Joanne and shared her concern that the children who most needed practice with social skills were not getting that practice. When they were removed from play, they were no longer in the learning situation. She asked Joanne to problem-solve with her about ways to help these youngsters learn to get along instead of just expelling them from play.
As they discussed the kinds of learning experiences these problem children needed, Joanne began to think of ways to teach instead of punish. But she realized that the changes required more than one adult in the large playroom. “I’ll have to ask Sheri or Maureen to work the blue room with me during choice time,” she planned. That change, however, meant having fewer options available for children. The teachers would have to alternate between opening the woodworking center and the painting area. Joanne decided that the sacrifice was worth it. With two adults to intervene, teachers could help children individually resolve disputes.
Caroline was pleased with the outcome of the discussion. She and Joanne reviewed the kinds of role modeling and problem-solving assistance that would be most helpful in teaching social skills. Joanne arranged a meeting with her assistants to go over this new plan.
Lack of Critical Thinking
Punishment doesn’t just limit learning about acceptable behavior: it limits learning in general. Brain research shows that events that create fear, anxiety, or humiliation have negative effects on mental growth (Butchart, 1998). Even strict environments that require superficial, automatic responses can inhibit the growth of mental capacity. The gruff and threatening order to “Do as you’re told!” and the expectation of instant obedience are examples of this type of environment. Children raised with this type of discipline usually have low motivation to think beyond parroting memorized answers. They tend to be submissive to the ideas of others and accept what others say uncritically instead of learning to think for themselves (DeVries, 1999). Such submissiveness may sound good to some parents, unless they realize that it will mean submitting to peer pressure when the child is a teenager.
In contrast, events that encourage reflection and other thinking promote mental growth and intellectual power. An example of an event that encourages thinking is Beau and the broken bracelet. Through his experience, he comes to realize the connection between his action and the broken bracelet, and then the connection between his work to earn money and making up for the damage. This type of discipline encourages children to think for themselves and strive to understand the world (DeVries, 1999). A brain that is exercised becomes stronger and more capable.
Lack of Inner Controls
For some kids, fear of punishment becomes the only reason to behave in socially acceptable ways. These youngsters are only likely to act appropriately when someone is there to catch them. Even then, the seriousness of the punishment is often weighed against the potential pleasure of the inappropriate action (Kamii, 1982). Often youngsters will choose to go ahead with the action and “face the music” later. Accepting the punishment can even become a sort of challenge to their courage. Not getting caught can become another type of challenge. Kohlberg’s (1984) extensive studies of moral development concluded that punishment is ineffective in promoting moral development, whereas the opposite approach, a de-emphasized use of adult power, assists the development of a child’s internalized conscience (e.g., DeVries, 1999; Kochanska, 1991).
Many people whose only restraint comes from fear of punishment become incredibly sneaky (Kamii, 1982). They become skillful at lying and other forms of deceit. You have probably known people who have adopted this dishonest approach to life. They get what they want behind people’s backs. Although they can act innocent, others soon catch on to them and learn to distrust them. Certainly, this behavior is not a desirable outcome of discipline.
Recent headlines tell us that juvenile crime is increasing alarmingly. The public response is to “get tough” and punish harder, while punishing the kids’ parents, too. Suggestions such as publishing the names of juvenile offenders are evidence of how little most people understand about how to improve behavior. How can publicly labeling a young person as a criminal possibly help that child behave better? When suggestions focus on prevention of juvenile delinquency instead of punishment, the plans aim at older kids who are already in trouble. Kindergarten teachers can tell you which of their 5-year-old students are likely to end up in jail unless they get help; the problems begin early, and therefore need to be addressed early.
Those who would address the problems through punitive measures need to read the research showing that children who are punished are most likely to turn to crime (Straus, 1991). In 2001, nearly three of every hundred American adults had served time in prison, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Almost a third of those who had served time were still under correctional supervision, including parole, probation, and in local jails (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004). Punishment clearly isn’t working, since building more and more prisons and incarcerating more and more people have not significantly reduced crime.
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