Coercion as a ‘solution’ to behavioural problems

From the archives: Posted on 16th July, 1995

A poster said:

“The problem I had with the ‘fine’ deterrent is that it is not related to the behavior at all, it’s simply a punishment. On the other hand, P’s son is getting some of the attention he wants by doing it. Her son has often been making huge demands of the family’s time, and it seems he’s found a new way to be the center of attention. (I don’t know why he’s got this drive, but he currently does – and maybe there is still something separate to be addressed regarding that…). If the hitting is indeed an attention getting behavior, then I would give him a timeout – you can explain beforehand about not liking being hit, not wanting to be with or play with someone who hits – and then when he hits, put him in timeout swiftly with as little attention as possible. No lectures before or afterwards.”

So if the parent chooses to interpret the child’s behaviour in that way, she should take that action? Hmmm, so if she chooses to interpret the very same behaviour in some entirely different way, “making the punishment fit the crime” would involve a completely different action. So in what sense, other than because the parent chooses it, is this “relating the punishment (or whatever euphemism you’d rather I use) to the crime?

A second poster wrote:

“But isn’t timeout also a punishment? If a child is hitting to get attention would it not be more productive to give him more attention rather than less?”

Quite.

The second poster wrote:

“I feel really uncomfortable about withdrawing from a child as a way to control their behaviour. I don’t have to like what they are doing and can express that quite strongly without withdrawing my attention (love) as a punishment.”

Indeed. But what we should be doing in these circumstances, is thinking about what we may have been doing or not doing, that has led to this problem, and thinking about how to solve the wider problem.

The second poster wrote:

“If a child is demanding copious quantities of attention it is usually because he is feeling insecure about something. The extra time spent trying to find out what it’s about and doing something constructive about it if possible is an investment which usually pays far greater dividends in terms of independence and autonomy later.”

The first poster went on to talk about her friend reading to her children as a way of giving them needed attention in a non-reward/punishment way. I have found that dropping dinner preparations, or clean-up or whatever when one of the kids is acting out negatively, and just sitting down to read a few chapters recharges and reassures everybody about what our priorities really are.

Agreed.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1995, ‘Coercion as a “solution” to behavioural problems’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/coercion-as-a-solution-to-behavioural-problems/