By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
Discipline: Punishment is Not Enough
Adult rules and expected behaviors are arbitrary to young children – they are something to follow so as not to get into trouble. Children don’t necessarily have an understanding of why they’re doing what they “should’ be doing. Because of this, if two “rules“ are in conflict, children often are in a bind, and don’t know which to follow.
For example, one little girl was given cash for her karate teacher when she was dropped off in front of the door of the studio, but accidentally dropped it when she stopped to help a much younger student who had fallen. When she got upstairs, she realized that she had dropped the money, a clear no-no. However, she also knew that she should never be late to class, and thus planned to retrieve the money afterwards. By then of course the money was gone, and she got into big trouble with a very angry mother, who couldn’t believe she’d dropped it in the first place and didn’t go immediately back to get it.
For this child, “help someone in trouble” and “don’t be late” were both powerful internalized rules of behavior, and she was trying hard to do the right thing by following them. She did not yet have the experience of the world to know that cash, once dropped, would probably be taken by someone else. In a case like this, the parent would have been better off trying to understand why the girl did what she did and using it as an opportunity to teach about the world. Yelling at her and taking away a privilege only led to confusion and resentment. Over time, repeated similar events can lead the child to fear and avoid her parents instead of turning to them for guidance (much less to “come clean” about mistakes.)
Similar dynamics are at play in cases when a child hides injuries from doing something he wasn’t supposed to do, such as jumping on the bed or trespassing in a construction site – which can have serious medical consequences. Tragically, a child may hide abuse because it happened where she wasn’t “supposed” to be, or because he was doing what he wasn’t “supposed” to be doing. The bottom line is that when children misbehave, adults often are too quick to react punitively, and don’t try enough try to understand and address why.
Of course, the misbehavior can still be punished or have a consequence if it’s significant enough, but sometimes it doesn’t have to be. Punishment in general is meant as a deterrent for repeating a behavior. Helping the child understand why a behavior was not a good choice, what would have been a better choice, and helping the child start to understand the world are just as good if not better deterrents.
Going over which “rules” trump others can also be helpful for children who are not yet reasoning at a high level. An example might be, “Telling someone about being hurt is more important than anything else, so don’t worry about getting in trouble.” Of course, the child’s developmental stage should always be kept in mind: someone with three or four year old’s capacity will not be able to articulate the “why” of what they did, no matter how gently and helpfully they are approached, nor will they be able to take in much verbal explanation.
In general, a good rule of thumb is that “The younger the child, the less language.” One can always add a bit more if the child asks questions or is able to take in the information. Finally, when you do mete out a punishment, make it something that reinforces the lesson you’re trying to teach, rather than being arbitrary. For example, in the karate payment example, if the parent wants to emphasize the value of money and being careful with it, they might have the child give a percentage of their allowance towards future lessons, or have them earn the money for their next treat or desired item.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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