It’s time to rethink how we punish children

Mon, 17 Nov 2014 Source: Parsson, Lisa

Light for Children is participating in this year’s “19 Days of Activism: Prevention of Abuse and Violence Against Children/Youth” campaign. One of the issues that the campaign seeks to address is corporal punishment. We would like parents and teachers across Ghana to give some critical thought to their long-held beliefs about both corporal and non-physical punishment.

Punishment is not very effective.

At first glance, this statement may be surprising. We have all seen children stop behaving badly when they are punished, and most of us have never questioned that bad behaviour deserves some kind of punitive response.

Behavioural psychology got its start in the early decades of the 20th century. Using mostly animal models, researchers like Watson and Skinner learned how we change our behaviour in response to the pleasant or unpleasant consequences of our actions. They used the terms “reward” and “punishment” but we should note that from the laboratory rat’s point of view, there was no person administering reward or punishment: the rats simply pressed a lever and caused a food pellet to drop into their cage, or pushed a button and experienced a painful electric shock. Punishment (or unpleasant consequences) proved to be somewhat effective in changing behaviour in this context, but only if it was highly consistent and predictable. Similarly, children quickly learn that getting too close to a fire is painful every single time, and so they learn to avoid it.

The situation becomes much more complex when an authority figure is doling out punishments and rewards. Children (and even rats) are intelligent enough to understand that the teacher or parent is choosing to punish them, and that the punishment is not a simple consequence of their own bad behaviour. Punishment in this scenario does indeed teach children something, but not usually what we want them to learn. If a teacher punishes a student for some misdemeanour, the student learns not to do it again – in front of the teacher.

Psychologists have shown that people (and rats) are more easily influenced by rewards than by punishments. When something turns out badly for us, we often try it again, especially if we do not get punished every single time. In contrast, we tend to retain the behaviours that are rewarded. To use a practical example, if a teacher wants students to be on time for class, it is more effective to set up a reward system (a wall chart where children get a gold star whenever they are punctual, for example) than to punish those who are late. The reward system is more effective than the punishment system at improving punctuality, and there is scientific data going back almost a century to support this.

So why have people been using punishments for thousands of years to try to control behaviour?

First of all, because it seems to work: When punished, children temporarily stop whatever they were doing wrong. At best, they are careful not to exhibit that same behaviour again in our presence, so we never see them doing it again. The reality is that we have no control over how they behave when our back are turned; indeed, because they have learned to hide the behaviour from us, we are less able to discover it and deal with it than before.

Secondly, we punish because we are angry. Anger in this case is the desire to make the person who has angered us suffer. We all know that we can later regret actions taken in anger, and that anger is not a good guide for behaviour. Still, it feels good in the moment.

Thirdly, we punish because we are busy. Western researchers in countries with smaller families and fewer students per class often forget this. With so many children under our supervision, there doesn’t seem to be time to get to the bottom of every problem and deal with it constructively. A hard slap across the bottom, or a caning in class, is a quick and easy response to a child’s bad behaviour.

Punishment Has Side-Effects

Even if the punishment seems to work in the short term, this success comes at a price.

• Avoiding the Source of Punishment: Children may not want to come to school anymore, or they may try to avoid contact with the authority figure that punished them.

• Lack of Self-Control: Children become dependent on authority figures and their punishments in order to control their behaviour; they are unable to control themselves in the absence of adults.

• Deceit: Children avoid punishment by lying about their behaviour, blaming others, cheating, or sneaking.

• Absence of Guilt or Remorse: In some cases, children feel like the punishment is simply the price of the crime, and they do not feel remorse once they have “paid.”

• Rebellion: Children simply refuse to cooperate, leading to escalating cycles of punishment and misbehaviour.

• Avoidance of Risk: This might sound like a good outcome, but all growth involves risk-taking. Children may be less willing to try new things, or to attempt to answer questions in class. Creativity (which always involves risk) may be stifled.

• Excessive or misplaced guilt: Some children internalize punishment too much, leading to excessive guilt and low self-esteem. They may also be confused about why they were punished, and for example may feel guilty for getting angry instead of for the behaviour that the anger produced.

• Aggression: Especially with physical punishment, children may become aggressive towards their punisher, or towards other children. This is particularly dangerous if they attack children who are smaller or weaker than they are.

Punishment Can Escalate Into Abuse

We have heard horror stories of teachers in Ghanaian schools who have gone too far and seriously injured students while punishing them. When a teacher or parent picks up a cane with the intention of hurting a child, there is always the possibility that the adult will lose control and do serious physical harm. Does corporal punishment really confer any great benefits that justify this risk?

Psychological abuse is also a danger. Often in schools, children are punished and publicly humiliated for things they have no control over. Non-payment of school fees, doing badly on a test, and tardiness caused by factors outside the child’s control have all earned students undeserved punishments. Children who are mistreated in this manner suffer the side-effects of punishment with no possible benefits.

Children who observe such punishments learn some interesting lessons too. Is it any wonder that so many of them grow up with a cynical and opportunistic attitude towards Ghana’s public institutions? When schools engage in corrupt financial practices, and when teachers mete out unjust, abusive and hypocritical punishments, be sure that our future headmasters, politicians, police officers and parents are taking note.

Corporal Punishment is a Human Rights Violation

In the end, it is irrelevant whether or not physical punishment is effective, or even whether it is harmful. We no longer talk about whether or not spousal abuse is harmful or useful because we accept the simple idea that women (and men) have the right not to be beaten by their spouses. Why do we not extend this right to the smallest and most vulnerable people in our midst? According to UN policy, children have the right to be free of corporal punishment, psychological abuse, and public humiliation.

Alternatives to Punishment

If punishment is more dangerous than effective, what else can parents and teachers do to influence the behaviour of their children?

1. Simple Rewards

We saw the example earlier of a wall chart with gold stars to reward students’ punctuality. This approach works best for behaviours like punctuality, attendance, tidiness, and keeping quiet in class that are an important part of living in society, but that have no heavy moral implications. Children are not usually intrinsically motivated to care about these issues, but using a reward system can help them to adopt good habits.

2. Talk to Them

When a child does something harmful or dangerous, they are not always able to see the negative consequences of their behaviour. An adult can help them understand why what they did was wrong, what they can do next time the situation arises, and if necessary, how they can make amends.

3. Don’t Expose Children to Situations They Are Too Young to Deal With

Do not leave a one-year-old child unwatched beside a busy road. Do not leave groups of 15-year-olds idle and unattended together every night unless you want grandchildren. Recognize that young people need their freedom, but sometimes they also need adults to remove some of their options.

4. Lead by Example

Children learn from your example. If you expect punctuality but are often tardy yourself, they will learn that once they grow up, they no longer have to behave courteously towards their colleagues. If you use violence to control them, they will learn that violence is a good way to control anyone who is smaller or more vulnerable than they are. Children will learn what you actually teach them, which may be very different from what you think you are teaching them.

Many people in Ghana are not in favour of corporal punishment but have a hard time envisioning society without it. They think that they have to find new ways of punishing children that do not involve physical pain, but non-physical punishments can end up causing almost as much harm. The good news is that in most cases you can go beyond punishment to find gentler, fairer and more effective ways to influence children’s behaviour.

Lisa Parsson

Columnist: Parsson, Lisa