The use of punishment
All children make mistakes and forget what they have been taught. Although punishment should not be used with very small children, it is sometimes necessary to use it with the older pre-school child who needs a more forceful reminder. When the child is four or five, old enough to take some real responsibility for his behavior and to understand why he is being punished, punishment may occasionally be used effectively. It should not be necessary to punish a child frequently. If punishment is used often it is usually a sign that things are not going well between the parents and the youngster. Then it is time for the parents to think through the situation and try to find the cause of the trouble.
A warning should be given to a child before he is punished, so that he has a chance to show that he can remember without punishment. A child should not be punished for a first offense. If he is punished his parents must be sure that he knows why, for punishment is justified only if it is to teach the youngster; it is not justified if it merely relieves the parents’ own tensions and feelings.
If punishment must be used it should be used promptly. A little pre-school child lives in the immediate present; he soon forgets what he has done, so that a delayed punishment loses its effect. Punishment of a little child should never be severe or it will produce fear and anxiety that will have more serious consequences than his mistake.
Whenever possible, the punishment should be a natural consequence of the child’s action, although common sense must be used here. If a little child dawdles over dressing, he should not be left behind if the family is going on a picnic.
If a youngster refuses to put on his overshoes, he should not be permitted to go out in the snow and catch cold. However, if a four- or five-year-old insists on disturbing the play of other children by taking their toys, teasing them, or hurting them, he might be removed from the group for a short time as a reminder that the others also have rights.
Isolating a pre-school child from the activity of other children with whom he is playing usually works successfully as a “punishment” or “reminder.” The period should be short. There should be complete acceptance of the child when he returns to the family circle or to the group, or is allowed to go out to play again. He should not be forced to say that he is sorry, for the chances are that at the moment he is not really sorry and would only be giving lip service to the words. It is not necessary for him to be sorry to have learned that he must not hurt other people. Some children are deeply embarrassed or upset at having to put things into words and refuse to say they are sorry because they do not want to verbalize their feelings. This can precipitate a new situation that has nothing to do with the original one and only confuses the issue.
Depriving a child of a toy for a period sometimes works as a punishment. If this method is used it should not be just any favorite toy, but something he has been using at the time he got into trouble. If he uses his toy gun to frighten or bully another child, it might well be taken away for a bit. If he insists on riding his tricycle into other children and spoiling their fun, the tricycle might be put away for that morning. If he tears his books, or marks them with crayons, the books might be put away temporarily. The disapproval of parents or friends is often a punishment in itself. Children as well as adults actually want the approval of those about them.
Parents should not threaten a child with punishments they do not intend to administer; nor should they use fear to make a child behave. It is wrong to say to a child, “If you aren’t good, the man down the street will get you”; or, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll leave you at home alone when I go out.” If parents think of punishment as teaching a child that what he did was not desirable behavior, they will realize that threats and fears are not good teachers. The child may behave for a time because he is afraid, but he has not been really helped to understand the difference between right and wrong. (Continue below to page 5)