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Children And Punishment

( Originally Published 1916 )

A PROFESSOR in a Southern city, who is evidently not a specialist on children, writes to an " efficiency expert " for information on the " scientific method of punishing a child for misdemeanors, such as theft, false-hood, and disobedience." He asks rather pathetically, " Is there no sane middle course between the old-fashioned whipping and the new-fangled spineless idea of non-punishment that makes the typical American child either a mollycoddle or a bully, according to temperament?

The expert replies by laying down a principle : " The right way to correct a child is by the automatic, reflex method of nature. Every violation of natural law carries with it a natural penalty, which through pain, disgust, or deprivation teaches the wrongdoer not to repeat his mistake. . . . Each parental rule should be based on some natural law, and the natural penalty for transgression should be discovered and applied."

Now there is just enough truth in this reply to make it sound right; and there is just enough error in it to make it misleading or dangerous. It is true that the child learns from his mistakes that every unpleasant experience teaches the lesson " don't do that again." This is a " natural law " and the application consists of establishing unpleasant associations between the actions we disapprove and certain consequences. This is the obverse of the principle of " rewards," namely, establishing pleasant associations with the approved acts.

But the fallacy in the alleged principle is brought out by the expert's own illustration of how he would apply it. He asks us to suppose that a boy, having been told not to eat between meals, disobeys the parental injunction and is seized with an attack of cramps. The way to enforce obedience, says the expert, is " not by administering pain-killer inside and a switch outside—the usual, inefficient method," but by allowing the transgressor to suffer the " natural consequences " of his misdeed, with frequent reminders that he is getting what he deserves for his disobedience. He recommends also a harmless bitter "medicine " to add to the child's disgust, in order to " intensify nature's method of discipline." " No coddling, no chastising, but the immediate linking of cause and effect in the mind of the child, and the natural revulsion from a deed that produces physical or mental pain; this describes in brief the efficiency plan of juvenile correction."

To every experienced mother two thoughts will instantly occur. Suppose the lad disobeys and gets away without any cramp—having fortunately a tough digestive system?' And suppose, as sometimes happens, that a child of the angelic, obedient kind gets a violent cramp? One is tempted to ask whether the expert knows any children, and whether he has tried out the . methods he recommends. It would take a child of an unusually docile and flabby mind to accept the doctrine that the pain was the consequence of disobedience, and a child as soft as that is really no problem at all. If we are concerned, in the supposed case, with teaching the child to refrain from food between meals, we should see to it that he has plenty of whole-some food, and that the meals come with sufficient frequency. We should see to it that he is spared the temptation to eat when he should not eat, and we should cultivate in him an effective faith in our judgment as to the best time for eating. But if we are concerned with making the child obey, the proposed method will be equally ineffective—or " inefficient " if you like. For the only lesson that a normal boy can get from the association between disobedience and " punishment " is the lesson to avoid getting caught.

If we extend the principle of natural penalties a little farther, we may see its futility or even its viciousness. The child who disobeys the order not to cross the crowded street alone meets the " natural " consequence of a direct physical altercation with an auto-mobile. Undoubtedly the lesson is well learned; but it is much more expensive than it need have been. The boys who swim out beyond their depth have a variety of opportunities to " learn." If one of them loses his head and drowns, he has but reaped the natural reward of disobedience. If another loses his head but is saved by a strong companion, he is thoroughly scared, and also learns a valuable lesson. If the third, in the face of danger, musters all his moral forces and calmly floats until rescued, he has learned the best lesson of all.

Does it follow therefore that we should give our orders and let the children obey or not, trusting to the " natural consequences " to teach them wisdom?

We must steadily and consistently establish mental connections and habits that will yield the kind of conduct that we desire in our children; and the habits are much more important than the mental connections, for these always challenge the ingenuity of youth for a way of escape. But we cannot depend upon the " natural penalties," for they lack the very thing that makes human training so remarkable—that is, the quality of discrimination. We must use all of our knowledge and all of our resources in applying " natural law " in the treatment of our children ; but it is not so much the laws of natural consequences of falling out of windows or of eating between meals that concern us, as the laws of the child's thinking and feeling, the laws of the natural consequences of ideas and experiences upon the child's character.

The " efficiency " man is right when he says that we should concern ourselves more with correction and discipline than with punishment; and we must be sure that the distinction we make is more than verbal. There is a sane course that avoids the brutal and undiscriminating whip as well as the other extreme of letting " nature take her course," and that sane course is decidedly not to depend upon " natural penalties."

The fact is that there can be no fixed rules for the discipline of children. Every offense is a new situation, every child presents a peculiar combination of problems. Our method of correcting will be influenced by our attitude towards the child—whether we seek to reach him on the level of his own thoughts and feelings, or whether we seek to impose our own more or less arbitrary scheme of retributive justice.

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