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Picture to yourself a dark hallway. Behind the door stands an indignant mother with a strap in her hand. It is past the dinner hour and William has not yet returned. But here he is now. He comes bounding up the steps, radiantly happy, and under each arm a pumpkin. He bursts into the house. His mother seizes him by the shoulder and proceeds to apply the strap where she thinks it will do the most good. The little boy is William J. Stillman, and the story is told in his autobiography. He tells how just an hour before dinner a neighboring farmer had asked him to go to his field to shake down the fruit from two apple trees. William was so glad to do something for which he would receive pay that he allowed the work to trench upon his dinner-time. The two large pumpkins he brought were his pay, and he knew that they meant a great deal to his needy family. Stillman, in writing of the incident, continues: “It is more than sixty years since that punishment fell on my shoulders, but the astonishment with which I received the flogging, instead of the thanks which I anticipated for the wages I was bringing her, the haste with which any mother administered it lest my father should anticipate her and beat me after his own fashion, are as vivid in my recollection as if it had taken place yesterday.”

While I hope that not many of us are guilty of such flagrant abuse of our power as is described above, still I am certain that on many occasions we punish just as hastily, without giving a chance for explanation and with as little thought as to whether “the punishment fits the crime.” I have often been impressed by the great interest that mothers take in uses of punishment and in kinds of punishment. It has sometimes seemed as if the most valuable thing which they could carry away with them from some child-study meeting was a new kind of punishment for some very common offence. I have frequently felt as if the only contact some mothers have with their children is to punish them, and that punishment constituted the chief part of the poor children’s training.

Now, punishment undoubtedly has a place in the training of children, but only a negative place. The proper punishment, administered in the right spirit, may cure or correct a fault; but punishment does not make children good. If children are punished frequently, it may even make them badWe can all remember some of the punishments of our own childhood. How unjust they seemed then, and do even now, after all these years to heal the wounds! How outraged we felt! Into how unloving a mood they put us! The history of punishment for criminals shows us three stages. With primitive peoples and in early times the first impulse is to “get even” or to “strike back.” “An eye for an eye”—nothing less would do. Then comes a stage in which punishment is used to frighten people from wrong-doing and as a warning—a deterrent for others. Gradually, very, very slowly, as we become more civilized and develop moral insight—develop a love for humanity—we come to recognize that the only legitimate purpose of punishment in the treatment of offenders is to redeem their characters, to make them positively better, not merely frighten them into a state of apparent right-doing—that is, a state of avoiding wrong-doing.

It is said that each individual in his development lives over the experiences of the race. How each of us passes through the three attitudes toward punishment is very interestingly shown by a study that was made some years ago on 3000 school children, to find out their own ideas about punishment. Miss Margaret E. Schallenberger sent out the following story and query and had the answers tabulated:

Jennie had a beautiful new box of paints; and in the afternoon, while her mother was gone, she painted all the chairs in the parlor, so as to make them look nice for her mother. When the mother came home, Jennie ran to meet her and said: “Oh, mamma, come and see how pretty I have made the parlor.” But her mamma took her paints away and sent her to bed. If you had been her mother, what would you have done or said to Jennie?

In the answers the most striking thing is the range of reasons given by the children for punishing Jennie. There are three prominent reasons. 

The first is clearly for revenge: Jennie was a bad girl; she made her mother unhappy; she must be made unhappy. She made her mother angry; she must be made angry. A boy of ten says: “I would have sent Jennie to bed and not given her any supper, and then she would get mad and cry.” One boy of nine says: “If I had been that woman I would have half killed her.” A sweet (?) little girl would make her “paint things until she is got enough of it.” Another girl: “If I had been Jennie’s mother, I would of painted Jennie’s face and hands and toes. I would of switched her well. I would of washed her mouth out with soap and water, and I should stand her on the floor for half an hour.” This view was taken mostly by the younger children.

The second reason for punishing is to prevent a repetition of the act: A thirteen year old girl says: “I would take the paints away and not let her have them until she learned not to do that again.” When a threat is used it is with the same idea in view: “I wouldn’t do anything just then, but I would have said: ‘If you do that any more I would whip you and send you to bed besides!’“ All trace of revenge has disappeared.

The third stage of punishment is higher still: Jennie is punished in order to reform her. In the previous examples the act was all-important. Now Jennie and her moral condition come into the foreground. None of the younger children take the trouble to explain to Jennie why it was wrong to paint the parlor chairs. A large percentage of the older ones do so explain.

A country boy of fourteen says: “I would have took her with me into the parlor, and I would have talked to her about the injury she had done to the chairs, and talked kindly to her, and explained to her that the paints were not what was put on chairs to make them look nice.”

A girl of sixteen says: “I think that the mother was very unwise to lose her temper over something which the child had done to please her. I think it would have been far wiser in her to have kissed the little one, and then explained to her how much mischief she had done in trying to please her mother.”

We can see from this study that the children themselves are capable of reaching a rather lofty attitude toward wrong-doing and punishment, yet these children when grown up—that is, we ourselves—so frequently return to a more primitive way of looking at these problems. In punishing our children we go back to the method of the five-and six-year-old. What is the reason for our apparent back-sliding? Is it not plainly the fact that we allow ourselves to be mastered by the animal instinct to strike back? When the child does something that causes annoyance or even damage, do we stop to consider his motive, his “intent,” or do we only respond to the result of his action? Do we have a studied policy for treating his offence, or do we slide back to the desire to “get even” or to “pay him” for what he has done? Sometimes a very small offence will have grave consequences, while a really serious fault may cause but little trouble.

Here, for instance, is Harry, who was so intent upon chasing the woodchuck that he ran through the new-sown field, trampling down the earth. He caused considerable damage. If your punishment assumes the proportion dictated by the anger which the harm caused, he certainly will be dealt with severely. Knowing that he had not meant to do wrong, he cannot help but feel the injustice of your wrath. Of course, he has been careless and he must be impressed with the harm such carelessness can cause. Whether you lock him in a room or deprive him of some special pleasure, or whether you merely talk to him, depends upon you and upon Harry. But one thing must be certain: Harry must not get the notion that you are avenging yourself upon him for the harm he has done, or for the ill-feeling aroused by his act—he must not feel that “you are taking it out of him” because you have been made angry.

This brings us to the old rule: Never punish in anger.

On the other hand, while we must allow every trace of anger to disappear, we must not allow so much time to elapse as to make the child lose the connection between his act and the consequence. A little boy at breakfast threw some salt upon his sister’s apple in a spirit of mischief. The mother sent him out of the room and told him that he would have to go to bed two hours earlier than usual that night as a punishment for his misdeed. Now we all know that “the days of youth are long, long days,” and the many events of that day had completely crowded out of the little boy’s mind the trivial, impulsive act of the morning. The punishment could not arouse in him any feeling but that of unjust privation.

This particular case illustrates three other problems in connection with punishment. In the first place, nothing that is considered desirable or beneficial should be brought into disfavor by being used as a punishment. Sleep is a blessing, and, it may be said in general, no healthy child gets too much of it. By imposing two hours of additional sleep upon the child the mother discredits sleeping. It isn’t logical. It is as unreasonable as that once favorite punishment of teachers, now rapidly being discarded, of keeping children after school. On the one side they are told how grateful they should be for this great boon of education, and for being allowed to come to school, and then they are told: “You have been very bad and troublesome to-day; as a punishment you shall have an extra hour of this great privilege.”

The second point is that no punishment should ever deprive a child of conditions that are necessary for his health or impose conditions that are harmful. And, finally, it is not wise to exaggerate the importance of trivial acts by treating them too seriously. The little boy tried to be “smart” when he threw that salt. With nearly every child it would be sufficient, in a case like this, to make him feel that it was really very silly and that he had made himself ridiculous in the eyes of the family. Very often the seriousness of a child’s offence is greatly exaggerated. We must not waste our ammunition on these small matters; if we use our strongest terms of disapproval for the many little everyday vexations, we shall be left quite without resource when something really serious does occur. Children are very sensitive to such exaggerations, and their attention is so much taken up with the injustice of making a big ado about such trifles that they overlook what is reprehensible in their own conduct.

Some of the greatest authorities believe that a child should be allowed to suffer the consequences of his deeds. We should borrow from nature, they say, her method of dealing with offenders. If a child touches fire he will be burnt, and each time the same effect will follow his deed. Why not let our punishments be as certain and uniform in their reaction? To a certain extent this plan can be followed. If a little girl stubbornly refuses to wear her mittens, it is all right to let her suffer the consequences, the natural consequences—and let her hands get quite cold. But this principle cannot be consistently applied as a general method. If a child insists upon leaning far out of the window it would be foolish to let him suffer the consequences and fall, possibly to his death. Part of our function is to prevent our children from suffering all the possible consequences of their actions. We are here to guide them and to protect them.

To abandon the child to the natural consequences of his moral actions would be even more harmful, for very often we must separate the child from his fault. This is true in a double sense. In the first place, we are concerned chiefly in removing the child’s faults, as a physician seeks to separate a patient from his sickness. But we must also avoid the error of identifying any fault with the fundamental nature of the child; that is, we must keep before us the character of the child as distinct from the wrong acts which the child may commit. If a child lies, that does not make of him a liar, any more than does his failure to understand what he has just been told make of him a blockhead. Yet the natural consequence of lying, for instance, is to be mistrusted in the future—to be branded a liar. This, however, is one of the worst things that can happen to a child, and one of the surest ways of making him a habitual liar. Many children pass through a stage in which they naturally come to have the feeling which is expressed in the saying: “If I have the name, I may as well have the game.” We must show the child that we have unbounded confidence in him, otherwise he will lose faith in himself.

It is clear, then, that the “natural” method will not work in such cases, for the impulse to condemn the child after he has committed a wrong deed, instead of condemning the deed, may merely help to fix upon him the habit of committing similar deeds in the future. In Nature, too, the same punishment invariably follows the same offence. If we try to imitate that method, the child soon learns what he has to reckon with. If the child knows that a certain action will produce a certain result, he often thinks it is worth the price. Then the child feels that he has had his way, and, having paid the price, the account is squared; so he feels justified in doing the same thing again. In following this course we defeat our own ends, as this kind of punishment does not act as a fine moral deterrent.

Scolding as a punishment is also not efficacious. We are justified in having our indignation aroused at times and in letting the offender feel our displeasure. There is something calm and impressive about genuine indignation, while scolding is apt to become nagging and to arouse contempt in the child. When we consider the many difficulties of finding a punishment exactly fitted to the offence in a way that will make the offender avoid repetition, we are tempted to resort to sermonizing and reasoning, for through our words we hope at times to establish in the child’s mind a direct relation between his conduct and the undesirable consequences that spring from it.

In doing this, however, we should not speak in generalities, but bring before the child’s mind concrete examples of his own objectionable acts from recent experience. It is useless to tell John how important it is to be punctual and let it go at that; it is not enough even to tell him that he often fails to be on time. If you can remind him that he was late for dinner on Wednesday, missed the letter-carrier twice last month, and delayed attending to an errand Monday until all the shops were closed, you have him where he can understand your point. Mary will listen respectfully enough to a homily on being considerate, but it will have little effect upon her compared to bringing before her a picture of some of her actions: how, instead of coming right home from school the day you were not feeling well, and helping you with some of your tasks, she had gone to visit a friend just that afternoon.

But reasoning with a child often fails to accomplish its purpose, because the child’s reasoning is so different from that of an adult. Unless there is a nearly perfect understanding of the workings of the child’s mind, reasoning is frequently futile. A seven-year-old boy who had received a long lecture on the impropriety of keeping dead crabs in his pockets said, after it was all over: “Well, they were alive when I put them in. You are wasting a lot of my precious time.” These little brains have a way of working out combinations that seem weird to us grown-ups. Only with a child of a certain type and a parent able to understand the workings of his mind may the method of reasoning work satisfactorily in correcting faults and establishing good habits and ideals.

No discussion of this subject would be complete without a word on corporal punishment. It is impossible here to present all the arguments for or against it. I am sure, however, that the most enthusiastic advocates of it will admit that it is not always practised with discretion and that it is in most cases not only unnecessary but positively harmful. Children that are treated like animals will behave like animals; violence and brutality do not bring out the best in a child’s nature. It would seem that intelligent parents do not need to resort to such methods in the training of normal children. As suggested by our veteran novelist, William Dean Howells, we have clung to the wisdom of Solomon, in this respect, through centuries of changing conditions. Solomon said: “Spare the rod and spoil the child”; Mr. Howells suggests that we might with profit spoil the rod and spare the child. In the small families of to-day there is no need to cling to the methods that may have worked well enough with the Oriental, polygamous despot, who never could know all his children individually, and it is therefore hardly necessary to use Solomon as our authority.

It is plain, then, that it is impossible to recommend any punishment as the correct one, or even to recommend any one infallible rule. This must depend upon the parent, upon the child, and upon the circumstances. But there are certain definite principles which we must keep in mind and which will do much toward making our task of discipline more rational:

  • We must never punish in anger.
  • We must consider the motive and the temptations before the consequence of the deed.
  • We must condemn the deed and not the child.
  • We must be sure that the child understands exactly the offence with which he is charged.
  • We must be sure that he sees the relation of the offence to the punishment.
  • We must never administer any excessive or unusual punishment.
  • We must not exaggerate the magnitude of the offence.

If we keep these principles in mind we may not always be right, but we shall certainly be right more often than if we had no policy or definite ideas. But, above all, we must recognize that punishment is only a corrective, and that it is our duty to build up the positive virtues. Let us expend our energy in the effort to establish good habits and ideals, and the child will shed many of the faults which now occupy the centre of our interest and attention. In a family where the proper spirit of intimacy and mutual understanding and forbearance reigns punishment will be relegated to its proper place—namely, the medicine closet—and not be used as daily bread. For punishment is a medicine—a corrective—and when we administer it we must do in the spirit of the physician. We do not wish to be quacks and have one patent remedy to cure all evils; but, like physicians worthy of their trust, we must study the ailment and its causes, and above all must we study the patient. The same remedy will not do for all constitutions. Therefore the punishment must not only fit the crime, but it must also be made to fit the “criminal.” Love and patience are the secret of child management. Love which can fare from the chilliest soul; patience which knows how to wait for the harvest.

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