Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

August 23, 2011

Sledge Hammers and Discipline – Why Punishment is Not the Best Option

Filed under: Tools for Life Posts — by Life's Toolbox @ 12:43 pm
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Truper Herramientas MD10FC 10lb Fiberglass Sledge Hammer This morning, the news reported the closing phase of the trial of the Alaska mom who videoed herself punishing her six year old by forcing him to drink hot sauce and take a cold shower so she could send the tape to the Dr. Phil show.  The court is debating what the appropriate punishment for the mom should be.  I certainly believe behavior should have consequences, and especially behavior that is abusive to children should be quickly and seriously addressed.  The focus on punishment as a response to bad behavior, certainly on the part of this mom, and echoed by the court, however, feels to me like filling your toolbox with only one tool – a heavy sledgehammer.

                A sledgehammer can come in really handy if you need to knock down a wall, or break some concrete.  Because of its large size – both in the mallet and its long handle, it is more capable of destruction because it can distribute force over a wide area.   Great for demolition – don’t try banging in a nail, or sculpting some stone with a sledge hammer.  You may get the nail into the wall, or chip away some of the unwanted segments from your statue, but the collateral damage will make it a total loss.

Punishment can be the sledge hammer of discipline.  It is necessary at times, but there are so many other discipline options that have more finesse, and less risk (time-out, response cost, and other techniques are not actually punishment and need not be done in punitive ways).  Research in schools and prisons (unfortunately, they have similarities) strongly suggests that punishment and punitive environments can actually escalate  violence and misbehavior.  The word sledge hammer comes from the Anglo Saxon word slaegan, which means to strike violently.  When it comes to  punishment, striking violently seems to create more violence.

Another major problem with punishment is what it fails to do.  The word discipline means to teach, and often punishment teaches nothing.  When a child is hit, sent to the principal, made to stand in the corner . . . what have they learned?  Was any new or useful skill developed?  What expectations were communicated to the child through this punishment, and how was the child supported in meeting those expectations?

Fall is around the corner.  Teachers young and old are considering how they start their school year, and some may have bought into the myth that you have to start tough if you want the students to respect you.  Parents engaged in their year round 24/7 struggles to maintain order and keep their families functioning may also be tempted to think strictness and punitive measures should be central in their parenting.  We all want children who do their jobs, follow directions and rules, and take responsibility.   We will, at times, need to provide consequences for negative behavior – not synonymous with punishment – but we do not need to be limited to punishment or punitive approaches.  We can engage children in learning self-regulation and problem solving.  We can create logical, teaching consequences (like overcorrection and retribution strategies) and we can provide greater supports to ensure children succeed, rather than waiting for and even expecting behavioral failures and then punishing them.   The positive behavior support approach (www.pbis.org) and collaborative problem solving (Dr. Stuart Ablon – http://www.thinkkids.org) are examples of such approaches.

The power of the sledge hammer is its ability to cut a wide swath of destruction.  As parents and educators, we can’t afford a tool that damages even a part of our precious charges.  We can’t afford to get caught up in the sometimes exhilarating and cathartic swing of the heavy sledge hammer – no matter how angry we are, or how much we think we need to teach a wayward child a lesson.  We are, first and foremost, sculptors,
builders, landscapers and micro-surgeons.  We need tools that will create, bring out latent beauty, and carefully separate the good from the not so good.  Relying too much on punishment, we risk turning potential masterpieces . . . to dust.

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