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Penalties for Children: the powerlessness of adults?

Penalties for Children: the powerlessness of adults?
Penalties for Children: the powerlessness of adults?
©: Firma V - Fotolia

When a person is born into our world, they come with their own needs (the so-called needs for basic security), however, they don’t have their own worldview yet. It is up to the parent’s education how this worldview is delivered. It must learn that there are not only its own needs but also the needs of others. It must also learn that it only can satisfy his own needs so far as this does not interfere with the needs of others.

Unfortunately, not all parents can provide their child with a sensible worldview. Often children are taught that the only way to achieve anything in life is through elbow technique or other means of vehemence; that they have to fight for their place in life over and over again. Parents who mediate such an attitude are known to work with penalties to enforce their views on how to bring up a child.

In this context, the question bears to be asked: Are there any meaningful penalties? Or is it possible to bring children up meaningfully and without punishments? That is what we want to discuss in the following sections.

Educational Questions & Methods

The so-called antiauthoritarian education came into fashion in the 1960s. Initially, it was believed to have found the Holy Grail. Children should grow up entirely free from the conventions and restrictions of adults so that they can find their own worldview and form their ideal personality. However, we learnt that this type of education (or non-education) ultimately does not deliver what it promises. On the contrary: The fact that children have no limitations in this anti-authoritarian education, they also do not learn to consider the needs and demands of other people. It is not uncommon that this education leads to an antisocial personality.

Of course, children should have the opportunity to form their worldview and not simply take it all on from the adults. However, the child still will need direction, guidance and boundaries. Strictly speaking, parents need to give their child guidelines, however, between those guidelines the child can move as freely as possible.

The communication between parents and child is crucial. Ideally the family speaks openly about the major issues of the child’s upbringing. That creates clarity and shows the child the consequences of his behaviour.

Request to parents

Basically, a child's upbringing places high demands on the parents. Often parents feel so overwhelmed, they need outside help. In particular, those who had not a good upbringing themselves find it hard to distinguish between the right and wrong methods to bring up a child.

Be aware setting limits also means to go through unpleasant situations, risking not to be the child’s most favourite person. Clarity and stability are essential qualities that parents should heed – for their child's sake. In this context, it is crucial that both parents pull together. Children figure out pretty quickly whether they can play the parents off against each other and gain an advantage through this tactic.

How to punish a child "correctly"?

Children and young people are testing their limits. That is part of growing up. However, if those limits are crossed over and over again and talking to the child does not help either, then you have to resort to effective means to put the child in its place. Unfortunately, many parents are very scarce with praise while, at the same time, they reprimand much more often and inconsiderate. This is the wrong way. Instead to complain about wrong behaviour, it is much more effective to praise the right, positive response. Sometimes that is already enough to correct the child’s behaviour noticeable.

If you can’t reach your goal through positive reinforcement, then punishment is inevitable. But that should never take place while you are emotionally upset. Punishment out of affect is often thoughtless, exaggerated harsh and not really in accordance with the child’s offence. Therefore, engage in the strategy of emotional control. Take a deep breath before you dish out any punishment. If you are very upset, you also can count slowly to 20 until you regain the necessary clarity and serenity.

A punishment should never go that far, that it violates the child's dignity or respect. Remember that you are the adult, act prudently and question your own mental state, before you punish your child.

fear of violence
fear of violence | ©: Markus Bormann - Fotolia

It is also important that the penalty is a logical consequence of the misconduct of the child. For example, if your child vandalised a vase, there is not much done, if you ban him from TV for the next week. In this case, the punishment has nothing to do with the misconduct. It’s much better to deduct the cost of the vase from the child’s pocket money. In this way, the child learns the direct consequences of his wrongdoing.

Remember, that children generally think in much shorter times sequences then adults. Excessive punishments such as one or two weeks house arrest therefore often do not achieve the desired learning effect. This is an almost unmanageable timespan for children. If you ban your child from watching TV just for one night, will have a much better learning effect because the end of the punishment, in this case, is foreseeable for the child.

Conclusion: Punishment should always be a last resort

It seems it is easier for some parents to impose a punishment for any misconduct of the child without discussing the matter first with the child. Sometimes children are not aware, that their behaviour was wrong. Therefore, they are not able to relate the punishment to their behaviour. In this case, the penalty totally missed its purpose. The best approach is always to communicate to the child what happened and listen to why the child behaves in a certain way. Use punishment only if you can’t resolve the situation verbally.

How to handle punishment in the youth group or on the summer camp

I assume no youth worker is keen on dishing out punishments and probably also shares the opinion that this is no pedagogically sensible penalty. The work “punishment” holds already a negative connotation. How can something negative reverse into something positive? Can you honestly say that this or that punishment has the desired educational effect so that the child or young person has learned something from it?

The opinions differ here significantly. And not to forget, according to every individual’s past and experience with punishment, he has also formed his very own opinion to this issue. Furthermore, the youth leader is only human, not infinitely resilient, but also (internally) vulnerable, so that there may be situations where the youth leader is overwhelmed and does not see any other way then punishing the child.

Theory & practice it’s not always just black and white

Here I want again to raise a few thoughts on the subject whether to discipline children.

  • Ideally, you would get along without any punishments. In this case, the topic would already be dealt with.

  • Nevertheless, in every youth group or summer camp it is important to set boundaries to that the group can function probably. The fewer, the better, but this orientation is very helpful. It is also important that you explain those rules. Example: Why is it important to sleep and not wander around in the camp all night long? Because, after no more than three days, the child or young person would be totally exhausted, collapse and lose all desire to participate in any group activities. Therefore, we observe a good night’s rest. Not just for oneself but also to not disturb other children.

  • What to do when rules are violated? Talk to the person. Do not moralize but talk seriously, listen and try to come to an agreement. Be clear about the consequences and give them a chance. 2-3 exhortations are recommended before you can put the consequences into place.

    • Of course, everything depends on the situation and the risks of the individual or the entire group.

    • It also depends on their own experience and upbringing.

    • Of course, depends on one's own personality (how safe or unsafe am I? How domineering am I? How scared am I? How (un)controlled am I?

    As you can see it is not all that easy here to find "THE WAY" to this subject. Every punishment is a reflection of your personality. Once you understand your own motivation for the need to punish you can re-think the punishment before you announce it.

    • Am I calm?
    • Is the punishment appropriate?
    • Is it conducive?
  • Instead of punishing you can also try to praise. Another way could be to point the child’s errors out and identify the consequences and dangers; where this behaviour would lead to if it continues to behave that way. I consider that to be the better way, then to bring a child up with fear of punitive measures. However, I also do not believe in a reward upbringing. In both cases, children learn a particular behaviour in order either to avoid punishment or to cash in on rewards.

    For some reasons, praising children doesn’t come easily to us. We are much faster with criticism and the threat of penalties. Why? Praise creates motivation, praising creates relationships, praising others creates the feeling " I'm accepted, I'm doing it right. I’m ok." Positive criticism of others can be taken on board, is useful, and the child doesn’t need to fear punishment. A big difference.

I considered listing here possible (experienced) punishments. On a second thought, however, I let go of this idea. Because every punishment should be regarded in the context of the situation. What is useful for one child may not work for another child. And when I look at myself, in the 30 years of youth work I have learned a lot.

  • What absolutely does not work, however, is corporal punishment

  • Pillory in front of the group (harassing, bullying, embarrassing)

  • Sending a child home should be your last resort. Only then when everything was futile.

[ © | 2000 Games and Ideas for Youth Work ] - 2000 Games and Ideas for Youth Work
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