Moving, improving: punishment will not help

From the archives: The original post was posted on 27th January, 2000

One poster asked:

Imagine a family who was been operating under the conventional ways of parenting for years, doing what they’ve been taught or programmed to do by their parents and society. The parents were introduced to Taking Children Seriously, have read the journals and Taking Children Seriously List for a year now. These parents want to be Taking Children Seriously parents because they believe it’s the right way to live. But they keep doing things they don’t want to do – reverting back to old habits and patterns. For example, saying things like “IF you don’t do this, you can’t do this.” Or forcing their children to help clean up the house. Or not allowing kids to eat or buy certain things. The parents feel badly and apologize but can’t seem to stop doing it. The question is this: how do these parents make the switch to doing the things they want to do and treating the kids how they want to treat them?

Another poster replied:

There are some kids who, when faced with what you are describing, would simply reply with, “And if YOU do that, then I am writing to the Taking Children Seriously LIST and TELLING ON YOU!”.
           There are also some kids who would reply by saying, “I can’t wait until you’re old. I have this little nursing home in mind that will be perfect for you.”.
           In other words, the kids help their parents make the switch.

Those particular ideas of help sound about as helpful as my schoolfriend was when she “helped” me not to “cheat” in my maths class by “telling on” me – NOT helpful!

You cannot help someone become a better person by punishing them, humiliating them, or threatening them.

Even if the person concerned is a parent, horror of horrors, he or she can’t be punished into improving; for improvement requires a rational knowledge-building process for which can’t be side-stepped by the application of a little coercion. Coercion is harmful to the mind, even if the mind is that of a parent. One can’t change in order to avoid humiliation or other punishment; one can only change through one’s own deep thinking, immense effort, and boundless creativity. And even then it is hard, hard, hard; and at least at the current stage in our cultural evolution, I conjecture that it is a very rare person indeed (if anyone) who is doesn’t blow it sometimes.

That is not to excuse us for those unfortunate times, and those unfortunate on-going coercive ways of interacting that we have not yet even identified. It is just to point out that the reality is that this is difficult, and that it will take generations of improvement. This is not something that will magically be all right by morning. We are fallible human beings, who were brought up coercively, living in a time and culture which is at odds with what we are trying to do in many ways. We are going to make mistakes. We do make mistakes. There is no quick fix. There is no magic wand I can wave to make everything all right. It takes the creation of new knowledge.

What we can do is to keep trying to improve. It will be little-by-little in some areas, and by leaps and bounds in other areas. There will be some areas in which we barely improve at all, because they are complete blindspots in our thinking (as a result of our own childhood coercion). To suggest otherwise, at least for us, at this time in history, in our culture, is to risk giving false hope which may be damaging. We all want to do the right thing, Taking Children Seriously or not. None of us want to damage our children’s minds and denature our relationships with them. I can see why it is so tempting to think that there is a way to jump to a state of perfect knowledge and hey presto! no more coercion, no more damaging, no more distress. But while optimism and retaining a positive attitude to life is vital for the solving of problems (one can’t think well when in bad states of mind), this idea is a grave mistake for a number of reasons.

First, it risks causing others to start thinking negatively about how badly they are doing in their own Taking Children Seriously endeavours, and secondly, when you think like that, you are less likely to be looking for coercion in your interactions, because if you think that only someone evil refuses to see the manifest truth (i.e., to manage never to do the wrong thing), then you will be likely to feel the need to rationalise away any coercion there is in your parenting, because no one wants to be an “evil person”. Accepting that this Taking Children Seriously endeavour is difficult and that there will be mistakes made can actually help one retain the positive, guilt-free state of mind that one needs if one wants to be able to solve problems. It can help one to find the courage to open the eyes of one’s mind and risk looking for problems we have hitherto not recognised. It can help us to engage actively with the problems we find and thus, work towards solving them.

Pretending to others or yourself that only evil people don’t manage to make whatever changes are necessary systematically impedes potential improvement.

Pretending that the road to improvement lies in receiving punishment, or in exposing one’s life to public scrutiny so that one won’t dare do the wrong thing is just horrible. A grave mistake. It really can’t help, and for the same reason doing that to children can’t help, only hinders their improvement.

See my article, Beware the curriculum mentality for more about why living under scrutiny is coercive and most unlikely to facilitate improvement in anything.

The second poster suggested:

Perhaps the parents would find it useful to ask their kids to help them by pointing out when they’re being coercive?

Yes, but that will only catch a small proportion of it and they may not be able to articulate it at the time you are doing the damage… because of the effect on thinking of the coercion itself.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2000, ‘Moving, improving: punishment will not help’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/moving-improving-punishment-will-not-help/