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Never Punish Children.
Okay, almost everyone will immediately know how he or she stands on this issue, and will have negative opinions about me. I am hoping however that there will be a few of you who will consider the possibility that this thesis is indeed correct, and that we should move toward a new way of rearing children than that which comes naturally (without becoming trained in child rearing), as a part of our basic animal nature. We can do better than chimps, but we have to learn how, and that requires studying, learning, and practicing, and it is not easy.
By punishment I mean ANYTHING the parent does to make the child feel bad, because the child has behaved differently than what the parent wants. Formal punishment is like spanking, standing in the corner, taking something away, grounding, etc. Informal punishment is verbal and nonverbal communication that hurts--scolding, ridiculing, shaming, threatening, staring at, frowning, sneering, etc.
Sometimes the natural model of child rearing works okay, even well, but if a problem develops for any reason, the natural model tends to make it worse and to add even more problems. Even with highly conscientious parenting, it is probably a matter of luck as to whether things start going badly. And once they do, they tend to get worse and worse.
Punishment, when it is being carried out, produces in the child low self esteem, the belief that “I am a bad person.” It causes demoralization (sadness, crying, “Why bother trying?”). It produces fear (“anxiety”). And perhaps worst of all, it produces anger. With repeated punishment and the build-up of anger-containing memories, chronic anger may begin to manifest itself as cruelty (getting back, bullying, tormenting siblings, cruelty to animals), destructiveness (ruining things, ruining situations, fire setting, etc.), and rebellion (overt defiance, passive aggression, and sneakiness). Especially malignant developments include escalating battles between parent and child, punishment-seeking, and the persecutor-rescuer-victim family scenario.
The state of mind while being punished is very painful, and every time it happens, the brain is getting better and better at producing that state of mind. It becomes available to be reactivated throughout the lifetime, making it extremely difficult to tolerate feedback as to one’s mistakes because of the activation of self-punishment that one takes over from one's parents when psychologically leaving the nest. Life can become a very difficult process of trying to maintain one’s self esteem and feeling of security in the face of the ever-present threat of experiencing that self-punishment. And one can find relationships very difficult because of the tendency to become hostile, in intimate relationships and especially toward authority. (If I gave you two identical twin puppies and asked you to raise one to be affectionate and the other viscous, you would know exactly how to do it.)
And the ethics that is produced tends to be more a fear of getting caught than a sense of joy produced by the belief that one is doing the right thing. No wonder we need police, investigations, incarceration, etc.
But all of this is “normal.” We have never known anything different. The idea that we can do better is of course ridiculous, most readers here will agree. It will be unusual for someone actually to give this idea serious consideration, since it involves time, effort, and conscientious self-examination, as well as perhaps getting beyond the effects of one’s own child rearing.
And one of the serious obstacles to pursuing this idea will be misunderstanding. The natural tendency for people is to assume that I am saying that children should be allowed to “run wild.” This is because people consider that there is only one alternative to punishment, namely, to ignore, allow, or condone. But I would say that no inappropriate behavior of a child should be ignored. It is the responsibility of the parent to do that which will promote in the child pro-social behavior, as well as good self-esteem and freedom from depression, anxiety, and chronic anger. Therefore, parents should be highly trained in the skilled use of the higher levels of child rearing--reward, teaching, and modeling for identification. Using these skillfully, according to easily verbalized and well-understood principles, is drastically different from using them naturally, and the details vary as the child matures and the problems to be dealt with increase in complexity and subtlety.
This post is just a glimpse of an extremely complex issue. For those interested in really exploring the ideas further, there is the freely downloadable chapter in the free book at http://www.HomoRationalis.com/RECR.aspx. That chapter is, however, only an overview, but repeated study of it will increasingly have meaning for those wishing to think new thoughts about one of our most crucial issues, and it could possibly be of some help to those who are witnessing bad things developing within their own families.
These ideas have evolved in me over the decades of working as a child and adult psychiatrist with the families of disturbed children, and of working with individuals and couples whose relationships have been deteriorating through the buildup of anger in those relationships. There is no research that I am aware of that will help in coming to any conviction regarding the validity of these ideas. Such conviction will have to come only from whether the ideas seem to make sense upon careful and intensive consideration, coupled with one’s own personal observations. That’s the best I can do.