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Myths About Punishment and What to Do Instead (Part 1)

Psychologists and developmental specialists unanimously agree that punishment is detrimental to a child's development. We’ve all heard detailed explanations about the psychological and emotional consequences any punishment can cause in the long run. We all read books and articles and generally agree that punishment does not equal discipline, and there are many other ways to interact with children. Yet, when we find ourselves feeling resourceless, helpless, angry, frustrated and stressed, somewhere from the depth of the subconscious mind, a little thought materialises that offers justification for punishment, supported by many generation-to-generation myths and explanations about the need to punish children.

Let us look into the five most common myths about punishment

Myth 1: "My parents punished me, and nothing bad happened. I grew up normal and unscarred."

This is a defensive reaction. As adults, we find reasoning and logical explanations to most things that happen to us in life, and we’ve learnt across the years to suppress feelings of fear, anger and distrust caused by punishment in childhood. We also cover up the sense of guilt by justifying the need to punish our children when we resort to it. We convince ourselves that punishment is justified even if it involves physical spanking. "I was spanked as a kid, and I am just fine, so it makes it okay for me to spank too." Although the thing is that by continuing this cycle of violence, we pass on all those feelings and emotions that we experienced as little kids (fear, powerlessness, helplessness, distrust, not to mention physical pain) to our children. Plus, those who are punished as kids are more likely to continue to punish their children in the future.

Myth 2: "Nothing else works", "She just asked for it with this behaviour!"

This is also an attempt to justify violence and reduce or eliminate guilt. It is also the shortest and laziest way to stop undesired behaviour. And yes, it might be pretty effective but only for the short-term. It leads to lies and secrets, which snowball into more significant lies and secrets and avoidance of communication with children. If we instead choose to cooperate with kids, explain to them the reasoning behind the unacceptability of certain actions and behaviour and the consequences that may arise if they continue, they will have a clear understanding of the boundaries and the consequences of their own choices the long run. They will learn to understand what can and cannot be done in the family, classroom, and society. However, this is a path that requires time and explanations over and over from you as a parent.

Here we need to remember that if punishment was the primary method of disciplining in a family, then change can't happen overnight. If the usual way of interaction used to involve threats, shouting and spanking, then after the first attempts to start a constructive dialogue, the child might begin testing boundaries and try to bend them even more than previously. They may subconsciously try to bring everything back to how it used to be. It takes time, consistency of approach and trust in yourself and the child.

Myth 3: "Children who fear parents, respect them naturally"

This is simply false. While it's true that children may comply with the desired behaviour if they fear what might happen otherwise, the eventual outcome is very different from motivation centered in respect. If your child fears you, they are far less likely to come to you voluntarily for help when they need guidance, advice, or assistance as they grow older and develop more autonomy- leaving them to struggle without your help.

Myth 4: "If we don't punish, children will become manipulative brats."

What we perceive as manipulation is frequently our children's natural inclination to behave out of habit, which we may have unintentionally reinforced. If your child hits you and you give them your complete attention by picking them up, holding them, or explaining why striking is bad, they will rapidly learn that they just need to hit to gain your undivided attention. We eventually characterise this behavior as "manipulative," although it was not your child's aim. They only wanted your attention, which they received!

The task of an adult in a relationship with children is to be an authority, establish rules on which a child can rely and boundaries that will help him navigate what is allowed and what is not. This is an indicator of the maturity and authority of an adult who works on the quality of relationships and understands that situations and context are changing, that boundaries are not made of stone and are not carved forever, that they will be violated and constantly checked. But it is precisely in the presence of a balance of inner freedom and external established boundaries that a child will be able to learn how to navigate the world much faster, make informed decisions, and in general, it will be much easier for him.

Myth 5: "Punishment is part of our culture"

In the past, one out of three babies died before the age of one, and after forty people were considered old. Not anymore. Everything changes with time and psychology has now shown that punishment is detrimental to human beings. Back in the day, no-one knew about the theory of attachment, about complex personality development, about psychosomatic and types of temperament. By relying on the traditions and cultural norms of the past centuries, we do not always pass on the best values to children. Public spanking for adults, by the way, was also part of many cultures before, so why not resort to that then?

We can continue writing about justifications and reasons for punishment and debunk them one by one. Yet, many parents still believe that punishment (whether psychological or physical) is the most effective tool despite all the research undertaken in recent decades.

The negative consequences of punishment outweigh the short-term effectiveness by miles.

By having a "convenient' and "easy" child right now, we are potentially sacrificing their future. Sadness, anger, fear, stress, low self-esteem, lies, rage, anger, aggression, depression, escape into addictions - these are just a small number of the negative consequences that punishment can lead to in the long term.

Well then…. what to do? Stay tuned for some thoughts. I'll share my tips on what to do instead in next months blog post. Be sure to subscribe to my email list if you haven't already, and you'll be sure to get that blog post send to your inbox when it's pu


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