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.

The Value of Struggle

I had taken the back off my transistor rado any times. But, this time I was feeling that bit more daring and, armed with a small screwdriver I started to undo the screws inside the back that would separate the inside parts from the case. There were various bits and pieces that I really wasn’t sure about – not sure what part they played or their significance.

My aim. The sound had become a bit rattly in recent days, like something wasn’t connecting 100%. I was feeling very curious and pretty confident that I could get in to the connections between all the various bits, find something loose, make it tight and proudly gt to listen to all my faourite songs on the radio knowing that i had made the sound better.

An hour and a half later, I sat on the floor feeling a cold sweat creeping across my skin. This really hadn’t gone how I wanted it to. I had various ‘bits’ of the radio laid out on the flor in front of me, a little pile of screws to one side and the case lay forlornly at a distance. This was now the second time I’d taken it all apart and my actions were starting to get a little panicked. The first time I was calm, confident and assured – I now realised, too much so. When I’d reassembled, put the screws back in, slotted in the batteries and turned it on I felt a sickening in my stomach as there was no reaction, pin drop silence. The radio was completely dead.

I heard the call to go to dinner. I ate, but didn’t really taste the food as I was so aware of my guilty secret tucked under the edge of the bedspread so as to be out of sight. The jumble of electrical pieces that i no longer felt confident or sure how they were going to go back together. As soon as I could reasonably get away, I headed back to my room where I simply made things worse and became more anxious for another hour. This was a mess. I was filled with a sense of guilt. The reminder of hat a radio cost and how i would be held to account for a lot if this one was ruined for ever.

Bedtime came and still no progress. I didn’t sleep very well that night. Another hour of tinkering in the morning was enough to make me realise the unpleasant truth – I was going to have to fess up. I had no choice to ask for help.

The long and the short, it didn’t go half as bad as my fear had built it up. Yes, there was the usual dose of parental anger, but that soon subsided. A week later I was taken through the process of how the radio went together and hey presto, it worked again (and the insignificant rattle of the loose speaker was sorted as well). It had been an unpleasant experience, but, as i reflect on it today it contained so much valuable learning – learning that I’m just not sure children get today. I think as a result of this and other experiences I grew up more able to undersand that uncomfortable feeling inside when things are not going the way they’re meant to. I learned not to go at a task like a bull in a china shop, especially if it was going to stretch me at the limits of my knowledge and experience. I learned that there are times to rely on your own independent skills and times when you should tap in to the superior skills of others. I also learned that when you head in to something it’s a good idea to lay down a string so that you can backtrack out of it when you need to.

Today’s children are growing up in a very different world and, I fear, are losing out on a lot, including the ownership of one’s own learning. I was reminded of my experiences with the radio when i read this sensitively written article from a teacher (and parent) about the ways in which modern parenting and educating are removing children’s love for learning and making them passive recipients of learning – the most successful of whom get the biggest wins and successes in the academic game.

The Atlantic – The Gift of failure – A Fear of Risk Taking Has Destroyed Kids’ Love of Learning

I believe we can address these issues. I also believe that we we it to our children to be talking about these issues and the potential alternatives. There are solutions and, if practiced consistently enough, we can help our children to grow up curious, innovative learners.

Political Correctness Gone Crazy !

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
Evelyn Beatrice Hall

For anyone who’s read George Orwell’s 1984, you’ll recall how a big part of the sense of oppression and discomfort comes from the apparent ease with which the populace fall in to Groupthink – a sort of somnambulent, unquestioning acceptance that there’s one way of thinking and all go along with it for an easy life. Of course, as we see in the film, this is encouraged and developed by those who control ‘the system’ so as to keep the population subservient and controlled.

There are plenty of commentators who have been more than ready to show the examples of how the education systems of many developed countries have been used to achieve similar things, going right back to the early days of mass education. The use of bells, strict imposed discipline, rigidity and rewards and recognition for reproducing the views and perspectives conveyed by the teachers are amongst many examples given. The argument is that this ensured that mass education produced obedient followers, not thinking leaders ready to break moulds – a way for the 1% to ensure that the 99% stayed where they belonged.

However, here’s a pretty disturbing article from The Atlantic that highlights a trend that has been going on in colleges across the USA for some time (and arguably elsewhere as well) that has all the appearance of a self-imposed and willing form of Groupthink emanating from the students themselves as a bi-product of the sheltered and cotton-wooled childhoods that they’ve experienced. The students themselves are creating climates within which there is “one right way” to think and communicate and anyone who deviates is immediately made to pay a heavy price for their audacity.

The Atlantic – Article – The Coddling of the American Mind

One aspect not talked about in the article, but that I believe is playing a part is levels of debt and the costs of a college education. In such circumstances the pressures become far greater to see college as a means to an end, rather than as a free form growth opportunity. In my own college years, fierce debate, argument and counter-argument formed a vital part of college days (and nights). By no means was everything expressed ‘politically correct’. At times, the older (maybe wiser) me might shudder at the naivete of some of the thinking behind views that were expressed. Nevertheless, I believe the activity of forming an argument, defending it, presenting evidence, listening to others and setting out to understand why they held the views they did (without having to agree with them) was a vital learning process that I wouldn’t have missed for anything.

Where are we headed, as a species, when the person who dares to hold an unorthodox or unconventional view is to be neutralised, stifled, forced to clam up and keep it to themselves whilst all gaily sail to oblivion on a sea of group think. Where is the space for Apple’s crazy ones, the misfits?

Apple Advert - To the Crazy Ones

John Holt & Sesame Street

For those educators who have never read John Holt’s books, I thoroughly recommend “How Children Learn” and “How Children Fail”. It’s some of the most sensitive and lucid writing on children and childhood you will find anywhere.

Holt passed away in 1985. He was no lover of schools and a great supporter of home schooling and ‘Unschooling’ movements. Tragically, when you read so many of his complaints against the school systems, you realise how little has changed since his time. How many educators applauded his wisdom, nodded their heads, but then failed to make the changes that were right for generations of children and learners.

A friend recently pointed me to a superb article written by Holt for The Atlantic back in 1971, in which he analysed shortcomings in the Sesame Street programmes for children;

The Atlantic – John Holt Article 1971

The reason i share it here is that I think it poses some fascinating questions for teachers, even today, about how they set up learning experiences for young children in the classroom, the practices that they use when introducing children to reading concepts, writing or concepts of number. Since Holt was writing, ICT has offered teachers great ways to achieve some of the approaches he suggests.

What also comes across in this beautifully written piece is the care for children, the sensitivity to their needs as learners that was Holt’s trademark.

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