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Children And Principles Of Punishment

( Originally Published 1916 )

THE subject of punishment is of perennial interest, since all of us seem to have the " instinct " to punish, and surely no one lacks the temptation to do so. The history of methods of punishing children and criminals shows a great change in people's ideas. Our earliest ancestors apparently had no hesitation about indulging their impulse in this matter. Everything that offended or injured one gave occasion for striking back. The law of retaliation was applied to all. That is, punishment was really a " paying back " for what one did not like. If your child tears a dress or soils the table-cloth, you might inflict bodily harm upon him, or scold him and make him uncomfortable just in proportion to the anger that was aroused by his thoughtless or mischievous act. You would then be " punishing " him in accordance with the methods of the most primitive savages.

Later in the evolution of the race, was developed the idea of punishment as a means of preventing people from wrongdoing. The idea here is that if disagree-able consequences follow a given act, that act is not so likely to be repeated. When your child stays out. too late in the afternoon—not realizing in the midst of the play that summer days are long, long days—or when Henry comes into the house with muddy boots on the day when you expect company, you may send him to bed without his supper, or you may withhold the visit to the circus to which he had been looking forward for so many weeks. You will be establishing an unpleasant association with the " wrong " act, in the fashion of our medieval ancestors, and perhaps the children will be more careful about muddy boots and late supper in the future.

But in more modern times an entirely new idea has entered the minds of those who have to deal with delinquents and criminals. Instead of paying them for their misdeeds (which helped neither the culprit nor the rest of us), and instead of inflicting hardships upon them (which prevented neither the culprits nor others from repeating the offense), we are gradually coming around to the plan of treating the wrongdoer in such a way that he will be cured of his propensity to act as we do not wish him to. When your Susie has cut up a sheet to make petticoats for her doll, or when Herbert has tried his new saw on the perfectly good kitchen chair, you might find some way of providing the one with plenty of material for her shears and needle, or the other with plenty of lumber for his constructive impulses. And you must find a way to convince them that other material is better suited for their purposes than bed sheets or chairs. In that case you will be acting in accordance with modern ideas of treating the misdeeds of those who don't know any better, or of those whose impulses are not so well controlled as your own.

Various studies have been made for the purpose of obtaining some insight into the children's own views on the subject of punishment. What effect has a " punishment " upon their thoughts and feelings? Of course it would never do to ask a girl or boy to explain these ideas and feelings. We should either obtain no results at all, or make the child self-conscious. But by asking thousands of children what they would do to a child that had committed a specified offense, it has been possible to get the children's point of view in a fairly satisfactory manner. These studies showed that the younger children generally think of punishment as a retaliation. When a child of nine or ten years, or younger, is deprived of something that he likes, or when he is otherwise " punished," he is likely to think that he is being " paid " for whatever wrong he had done. The punishment is a retribution, and while he may protest at the severity, or resent the in-jury to his feelings, he still has a lingering suspicion that it " served him right."

From about this age on, the child gradually comes to the feeling that parents and others punish him for the purpose of " teaching him a lesson." It is doubtful whether this realization does actually reenforce the lessons administered through punishment; but it is very likely that the child's attitude is now somewhat different from what it was in his earlier years.

During the adolescent period most normal children come to think of wrongdoing in terms of temptation, and of punishment as something to help people avoid temptation.

It has been argued from these and similar studies that the younger children should be punished by means of penalties and privations, because they can under-stand the " logic " of vengeance and retaliation. And that the children from about ten to fifteen should be treated in a way that will prevent repetitions of wrong-doing, while only the older children can be reasoned with. There is, of course, a good deal to be said in favor of this view. But when we recognize that in addition to their native instincts the children get so much by imitation of their surroundings, it would seem safe to conclude that the best thing to do is to keep before them the highest models of conduct, in punishment as in other matters.

There are certain temptations connected with other people's wrongdoings, and especially with children's wrongdoings, that must not be allowed to master us. For example, there is the temptation to do something violent, or to say something that hurts. The best rule in such cases is—Don't! " Don't punish when angry," is not altogether the result of modern science. The ancients had already gathered wisdom enough to under-stand that.

Another temptation to avoid is that of condemning the child in proportion to the damage or seriousness of his offense. In fact, we are tempted to confuse the seriousness of the offense as an act with the seriousness of the consequences—which is an entirely different matter. Throwing a ball for fun—even carelessly—is not very serious if the ball only strikes a tree and shakes off some leaves. But throwing the ball carelessly is no more wicked or immoral if the ball happens to break through an expensive window and strikes an old lady. We must therefore separate the intent or motive of the deed, from the consequences ; and we must condemn the offense and not the child.

Whatever reproach or privation we impose upon a child must be clearly connected with the offense. The child should always know just exactly why he is being punished. Moreover, the punishment should not be so long deferred that the child can lose the connection between his offense and the punishment.

Nothing that may be unfavorable to a child's health, such as interference with meals or with sleep, should be used as a punishment. Nor should useful work or study be discredited by being used as a means of punishment.

Finally, we must remember that punishment is a medicine. There is no one punishment that fits all cases or all children. Each case must be studied by itself, and the punishment must be made to fit the offense and also the offender.

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