Discipline and Punishment

There are certain beliefs that are so ingrained in our society that few ever question them. One is that adults, being bigger and older, have the right to ‘control’ children. In times gone by this came through sayings like – ‘children should be seen and not heard’. It’s in the nature of power that those with it control and dictate compliance to those who have none or less of it.

Next – through sayings like ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ we see the workings of the belief that the ‘discipline’ required in a child will only come about through control, coercion and even ultimately the use of punishment – whether that be physical or mental. In this day and age it is, to my mind, rather extraordinary that there are states in the US where the right to physically chastise/ punish/ assault (!) children is still given to teachers in schools. I believe the more enlightened places are the European countries where it’s made very clear that physical punishment of a child by anyone (including parents) is illegal.

There are all sorts of reasons why use of physical force against children should no longer be accepted in society. These include the fact that brutalized children are more likely to be violent to their peers, such use of violence is more about lack of anger control on the part of the adult than punishing the child. But, the biggest reason is that all the evidence tells us very strongly that it just plain doesn’t work. Where it may produce ‘acceptable behaviour’ as compliance, all evidence suggests that when the fear of the punishment isn’t there the behaviour is no more likely to be replicated.

I’m well aware that there are cultural elements to the attitudes on this, but what we have to understand is that as more evidence is built about psychology, and especially child psychology, the more willing people must be to challenge cultural orthodoxies. There are cultures within which the belief is that whether children or adults people need to be pressured to do right and that positive behaviour only happens in the face of potential punishment. These are the people who applaud the rigid and forceful laws and policing in places like Singapore. I personally subscribe to a belief that with the right moral compass and positive habits people will do right because it is right without the need for fear or coercion.

Discipline is a big issue in schools. Where there is weak discipline too many children are acting in ways that can prevent others from having a fair opportunity to learn as they want and need. In the worst cases it can make school a dangerous place when poor discipline manifests in peer to peer violence or bullying. Many seek to maintain discipline through fear of punishments, through control and also by organising learning activities in such a way that students are regimented, docile and passive – making it easier to control discipline. However, we know that this is not the best way to learn. We also know that it doesn’t lead to the best learning of self discipline, but instead can lead to a sullen, pseudo-compliance and fake obedience – we do what you demand while you’re watching us, but you can’t be watching us all the time.

Here are two interesting articles. Whilst both are written from the perspective of parents and discipline in the home, there’s much that is relevant for teachers and schools when thinking about how to maintain positive, healthy climates around discipline. The first comes from a parenting website, the second from The Atlantic.

Creative Child – The Messages Behind Discipline

The Atlantic – No Spanking, No Time Outs, No Problems

The common message coming through both articles is accentuating and praising the behaviour we want to see, rather than seeking to punish the behaviour we don’t want. Ultimately, I believe that we have to have both a short and long term perspective. When there is behaviour that is inappropriate, it needs to be dealt with/ redirected in the short term. However, we also need to have in mind the far more significant long term desire to have our children grow up to be self-directed and self disciplined – in other words, to do right and to behave in ways that are fair, reasonable and in both their own and others’ best interests by choice and free will – not because of bullying conditioning, fear or punishment.

The latter article is not only interesting in its own right. It’s a measure of how emotive these issues are and how much emotional baggage is attached related to people’s own childhood and upbringing that the comments section has so many responses and many of them express strong emotions. This is even the case from grown adults who were victims of cruel and bullying punishment and discipline as children. Their emotions are clear from their comments and some clearly have carried scars and mental harm long in to adulthood.

Whether we are parents or educators responsibility for a child is a massive and weighty responsibility that we must take very seriously. Our words and actions towards the child will have a significant impact on the adult they will be later. In these circumstances, we must always be reflective, candid and careful to make ourselves well informed, to hold ourselves accountable and to take our duty very seriously. We’re not perfect. We will have days we get it right and days we make mistakes. However, our children deserve that we are always striving to be better, to guide them better to the right behaviours in ways that nourish, enrich and equip them. And, as I’ve said on many occasions the least starting point is – do no harm.

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NDTV – No Kidding

Well well, I just found this – didn’t know it was still out there on the internet.

It’s an episode of NDTV’s ‘No Kidding’ hosted by Seema Chandra, called “How to Handle Bullies” in which i was interviewed. Watching it again after 6 years I found myself saddened that in so many ways the same debates are still going on and not too much has really changed.

NDTV – No Kidding – How to Handle Bullies

There’s no question that we still have a very long way to go if we are to make our schools more empathic places where children’s first inclination is to support and back each other up, rather than to attack, undermine and put down.

Paulo Coelho – Facts on Bullying

Bestselling writer, Paulo Coelho shares some awful statistics on bullying. I agree with him that whilst the data relates to USA, it can be extrapolated with minor variations to every education system in the world;

Paulo Coelho Blog Post

To me, what is key to addressing these issues is that we must not be looking to simply paper over the issues or address symptoms, but rather must work to change the culture of schools and the environment within which children grow up so that the issues that create bullies and victims are addressed at the root.

Bullying – Is It Taken Seriously Enough?

This is a very interesting article that looks at the current state of the debate on bullying in the American education system. It’s interesting not only because of what it shows in terms of what’s happened there, but also for the reflections it provokes on our own responses to how we deal with the issue of bullying in Indian schools;

Huffington Post Education Article on Bullying

Do we also see overt or covert expectations that bullying is a ‘fact of life’, to be expected and impossible (or even undesirable(?)) to eliminate?

Bullying – Useful Resources

Here’s the link to a whole lot of articles and materials on countering bullying in schools from the ASCD ‘Whole Child’ site:

Whole Child Blog – Bullying Resources

Bullying – Module for Teachers

By luck I chanced upon this great resource – a teachers’ module from the American Psychological Association packed full of useful information on this vital topic. It also provides a number of links to further material:

APA Module for Teachers on Bullying

(There are also a number of other high quality teacher modules on various topics: APA Modules for Teachers)

Soft on Ragging and Bullying?

It seems quite easy these days for the morning papers to disturb us, usually over the state of civic infrastructure or the trials and tribulations associated with the commonwealth Games preparations. This morning, it’s a different, small story in the paper that has really troubled me:

“Delhi High Court has said that students accused of ragging should not be expelled for life from colleges as it will ruin their career and might turn them into anti-social elements. The court made the observation while directing DU and Kirori Mal College to re-admit two students.”

Let us not beat about the bush here. Ragging is bullying. Ragging is subjugating others, humiliating them and exerting power over them for sadistic pleasure and a form of interpersonal power politics. Furthermore, in pretty much every country of the world, any person over the age of 17 is held legally culpable as an adult for their actions. This is because they are deemed, in law, to have the brain and mind of an adult, capable of the ‘mens rea’ to commit a crime.

If a responsible person commits a crime, they must be punished and the message sent to all of society that their acts are not tolerated. Such woolly, weak acts by the judiciary can render academic institutes almost impossible to run – jungles where the bullies and power hungry can exert their will over others with impunity. I’ve seen the same kind of woolly judicial statements on exam cheating – which is why i believe it’s so prevalent here compared with where I grew up in UK. There, when growing up, I and all my peers knew that if caught cheating the punishments would be severe and uncompromising. Everybody knew that the implications were so unpalatable that they just didn’t do it.

Becoming an adult means one is responsible 100% for one’s own life and the choices made in it. If a young person is old enough to take decisions about engaging in risk behaviours such as smoking, drinking etc, or to get behind the wheel of a car, then one must also be old enough to be held completely accountable for one’s actions, especially when those actions are harmful to others or damage the society as a whole.

This idea of ‘ruining their career’ is frankly pathetic to me. If i do wrong and I am punished for it, i still have all the choices in the world about how I respond, how i make amends to society or even to my family. A young person can just as easily take this life lesson and use it to motivate and power themselves towards success and achievement as to use it as an excuse to become even more degenerate and anti-social.

To suggest that young people don’t have these choices and must be forgiven all sends a message to them that the choices they make don’t matter as they will be forgiven all bad decisions. We don’t need less accountability, we need more!

Did Aman Kachroo die for nothing? Did the suffering of all the other victims of ragging and bullying in the country count for nothing?

See the list of students in this Wikipedia article – young victims who never had the right to have a career because bullies are allowed to go unpunished. Judges should be supporting educational institutes to clean out the bad elements so that those who want to study, those who want a quality education can pursue their dreams without fear.

Wikipedia link

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