Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Crime and Punishment

A friend has informed me of a book called Parenting Without Punishment, a book described to be “about positively motivating kids and avoiding using punishment”. I cannot say I am familiar with the book, but its Amazon description gives some information away regarding the parental methodology at hand when it states the book “deals with how to use reinforcers, star charts, time outs, and contracts” in order to produce a self-monitoring, self controlled child.
On the face of it I like the idea. It’s hard work to try and create a reward system for positive experiences, though, and then there is the issue of whether rewarding your child to do good is the ethical equivalent of bribing. As in, you’re not really teaching your child to do good, you’re just teaching him/her to do whatever gets them their reward. At what stage can your child tell the difference?
But I'm digressing.

My main argument with the book is to do with practicality. I’ll give you this morning’s scenario: we got up for work (parents)/kinder (three year old); I prepared my son his dose of medicine but he refused to drink it. What should I do next?
You can argue that if I did my homework and established a motivational framework then my son would have enough positive inclination to drink the medicine. However, what if he wouldn’t drink it still?
In our case it is obvious our three year old has reached the stage where he deliberately tests us by going slightly over the boundaries we’ve set for him. This morning it was the medicine, last night it was a chair he toppled over but wouldn’t pick up. I understand where he’s coming from: he’s new to our world and he needs to know exactly where he’s standing; experimentation is the best way to figure this out. You can therefore argue my son is applying the scientific method on us.
In my opinion, given the practicalities of having to get to work on time, punishment is the most effective way of dealing with this situation. Note I am not talking about particularly cruel punishments here, just enough to make my son think about the consequences of his actions (or at least give him the opportunity to do so). I’ll give you an example: when, last week, my three year old chose to pee in his pants instead of do it at the toilet, just so he could play with his toys a bit longer, his punishment was no TV watching for the night. Instead of TV we spent the same amount of time reading books together (in between me reminding him why we’re reading and not watching TV). The point of the punishment was that my son ended up getting a superior experience for his wrongdoings, even if he doesn’t realize it; on the negative side he also got a lot of attention for his wrongdoing, which could encourage him to pee in his pants again.
I do not claim to know the perfect solution for adjusting child behaviour; all I’m saying is that practicability counts, and with all due respect to text books I want to see their authors deal with real life situations first.

All this mishmash of conflicting needs, wills and practicalities made me sit back and think (how dangerous can that be!). I therefore want to raise the level of discussion up a notch and ask a simple question: do we want to raise children in a punishment free environment in the first place?
It sounds good, living a punishment free life. There is also the argument that punishments never really solve the problem they are meant to address, which is certainly an argument I tend to agree with.
Then there are the facts of life. One of them is that you will get punished during your lifetime, like it or not. In our modern civilization we may like to think that we can lead a punishment free life but that is clearly not the case: we live in a harsh universe that is totally indifferent to human endeavour and will punish us the minute we relax. We are also pretty good at punishing ourselves; we may choose not to do so to toddlers, but there are plenty of experiences out there that will punish a teen or an adult. Thinking otherwise places you in the delusional corner quite explicitly.
From the parental point of view, it is possible to argue that it would be wise to provide the punishment experience to your child so that he/she will learn the harsher aspects of life. As I said, my son’s attempts at touching are soft nerves are perfectly natural and understandable; he would be stupid (in the official dictionary sense of the word) not to venture there. It could then be argued that it would be just as stupid for me not to demonstrate the full consequences of crossing the acceptable line.
I won’t pretend to know the answer to the question, but perhaps it is wise to expose your child to punishments of the more constructive nature.

Image copyrights belong to Amazon


Wicked Little Critta said...

Clearly you've spent some time thinking about the content of your post, so I'd like to take some time to respond!

First off, you mentioned you wanted authors of books to have practical experience. If it helps, the author mentions his children once or twice. Just thought I'd throw that out there.

The things that the author (Maag, for future reference) propose for motivating kids are fundamentally positive. Even the way he encourages parents to think about their kids is positive and proactive rather than negative and reactive. Rather than not paying attention to decent behavior and reacting to negative behavior, which essentially puts the parent at the mercy of the child's behavior, he encourages parents to preempt these situations by acknowledging acceptable and good behavior regularly and not reinforcing the negative behavior. You're right, it takes significantly more work and planning, but he says that there is much more of a long run payoff by operating in this way.

Allow me to quote him: "I hear regularly from both parents and teachers 'I don't want to have to bribe my child to behave'...We all respond positively to positive reinforcement. Who among us would work at our job for free? Is not the sporadic recognition of our employer reinforcing?"

Wicked Little Critta said...

The idea is that children associate positive actions and behavior with positive things, and negative behavior with things. And you need both, not just the one. Sure, at first they're only doing it because of the reinforcer, but that's why most of us do what we do, as well. Even acts of kindness and altruism can be very selfish. And in time as they develop a better understanding of human behavior and some sort of morality, they have a basis of positive reinforcement which is more motivating rather than just memories of punishments and a desire to avoid those.

And that's another point the author makes, which I believe is true: scientifically speaking, positive reinforcement is much more successful in general than punishment. Thankfully, he doesn't write the book as a way to say "Isn't punishment terrible and icky? We should only be positive with children all of the time!" or something as fruity-sounding as that. He doesn't frame it in a way that declares punishment as wrong or entirely ineffective. He only states that in practice, it is a more negative experience for kids, it isn't as effective, and on the whole, parents don't really understand how to do it.

Wicked Little Critta said...

I just appreciate the re-framing that Maag does of what discipline should be and what is most effective. Again, you're right, it is more work at first, but like anything it becomes less intensive as both parents and children figure it out and also more second nature.

Fire away. :)

Moshe Reuveni said...

I don't think you'll have me firing away here. I have no issues whatsoever with everything you said. The way I take it, positive encouragement is much better than negative and I don't need a book to tell me that; but I also maintain (and you don't seem to disagree) that the occasional well implemented punishment is not totally out of place.
Thanks for the inputs.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Good. And you're welcome.

I guess where the book is useful (because you're right, most people don't need someone to tell them that positive is better than negative) is in the practical application. You mentioned a scenario and essentially asked "what now?" and that is what the book is about. Certain punishments work, others don't. Certain reinforcers work, and others don't. And that is where well-intentioned yet ineffective parents miss the mark, because it is rather a complicated thing to figure out for your average person. This is the real strength of the book.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Mmm... Sounds like I should get the damn book.

Wicked Little Critta said...

Thanks for making me laugh.

In general, I don't usually push things onto other people, and I don't want to come across like I'm doing that here. Even now, I'm thinking to myself, "Geez WLC, shuttup about the stupid book."

Moshe Reuveni said...

Don't worry, I will do all sorts of examinations before getting the book (e.g., read previews). There are too many exciting to read books on my plate for me to just jump to another, no matter how relevant it is.