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Consequences for whom?

When I share with people that I don’t believe in rewarding or punishing students, I tend to get some very odd looks. The idea that a parent or teacher would not reward children for good behavior or punish them for being bad seems to many to be more than just a foreign idea.

Here is one of the first questions I get asked:

Don’t you believe in consequences? How will children grow up to be good people if they don’t know that there are consequences to their actions?

I do believe there are consequences for people’s actions, and kids really do need to learn this, but when people imply that children need to learn consequences, they almost always mean the consequences to the child. If this is the kind of myopic character development we endorse is it any wonder how many kids grow up to be self-serving, egotistical, narcissists?

In his book Beyond Discipline: From Compliance To Community, Alfie Kohn makes the case that punishment actually impedes the process of ethical development:

A child threatened with an aversive consequence for failing to comply with someone’s wishes or rules is led to ask, rather mechanically, “What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it? – a question altogether different from “What kind of person do I want to be?” or “What kind of community do we want to create?”

Think about such a shift in the context of this commonly heard defense of punishment:

“When children grow up and take their places in society, they’re going to realize that there consequences for their actions! If they rob a bank and get caught, they’re going to be put in jail. They’d better learn that lesson right now.”

The fatal flaw in this argument is that we want children not to rob a bank – or do various other things that are unethical or hurtful – because they know it’s wrong, and also because they can imagine how such actions will affect other people. But when disciplinarians talk about imposing “consequences” for a student’s actions – and inducing him to think about those consequences ahead of time – they almost always mean the consequences to him. The focus is on how he will get in trouble for breaking the rule. This fact, so fundamental that it may have escaped our notice entirely, is a devastating indictment of the whole enterprise. Just as some people try to promote helping or sharing by emphasizing that such behaviors will eventually benefit the actor, so the reason for the child to behave “appropriately” is the unpleasantness he will suffer if he fails to do so.

By contrast, ethical sophistication consists of some blend of principles and caring, of knowing how one ought to act and being concerned about others. Punishment does absolutely nothing to promote either of these things. In fact, it tends to undermine good values by fostering a preoccupation with self-interest. “What consequences will I suffer for having done something bad?” is a question that suggests a disturbingly primitive level of moral development, yet it is our use of punishment that causes kids to get stuck there!

You say you’re concerned about the real world, where some people do awful things? So am I. In the real world, getting children to focus on what will happen to them if they are caught misbehaving simply is not an effective way to prevent future misbehavior because it does nothing to instill a lasting commitment to better values or an inclination to attend to others’ needs. Most people who rob banks assume they won’t get caught, in which case there will be no consequences for their action, which means they have a green light to go ahead and rob.

If we really care about character growth and ethical development in children, we have to stop managing their behaviors and start working with them as safe and caring allies. We need to stop seeing misbehavior as this thing to be squashed out and start seeing misbehavior as problems to be solved together.

We have to stop reacting to misbehavior by saying:

He has done something bad; now something bad must be done to him.

And we need to start saying:

We have a problem here; how are we doing to solve it together?

On a superficial level, some disciplinarians use the “real world” as justification for rewards and punishment as a means to manage children’s behavior; however, real pragmatism tells us that working with kids to solve their problems constitutes as the only hope we have of reducing the frequency of misbehavior over the long haul, and our only hope for helping kids grow into caring citizens.

Lilian Katz summarizes this discussion up nicely:

Some teachers tend to focus on what is happening rather than on what is being learned. They may wish to simply stop the incident rather than consider which of many possible interventions is most likely to stimulate long-term development and learning.

It takes courage not to punish, and it takes real effort to see misbehavior as an opportunity for the teacher to teach and the student to learn.

About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


2 thoughts on “Consequences for whom?

  1. Joe,

    I am going to launch off from “We have a problem here; how are we doing to solve it together?” This is my approach to life–personally and professionally, and I think conflict resolution involves skills that many people are not equipped with. it’s simply not something that we do well as humans on the whole yet.

    It requires a certain sophistication and development of character that is not widely celebrated. Consider that the press is now reporting on the United States public exalting ignorance as a virtue! (

    Conflict resolution requires an ability to be discerning, understanding holistic human development in the context of profound sanity and maturity. When is a problem the right problem to be had, unavoidable and necessary for growth? When was it an avoidable mistake caused by the carelessness of a particular individual or individuals? When is it timely to forgive and forget? When is it timely to stop the presses and deal with nothing else except a given problem? Is every problem to be solved by a long involved process or is it at times appropriate to yell and leave it there?

    This requires a sensitivity not regularly practiced, nor striven for. To properly appreciate what is happening at any given moment and the proper way to respond takes years of contemplative practice and mentorship.

    So I am not at all surprised when the old adages of behavioral conditioning continue to reappear and be thrown up as defense for the status quo. This doesn’t detract from my understanding that a new paradigm of conflict resolution is needed.

    It is easy in this dance to get caught up in pointing the finger, to shout across the aisle about how what “they’re” doing is the problem, and if only “they” got on my life raft we would make it. As we all know this doesn’t get us far down the river of progress.

    Inspiration, stories of hope and wisdom in action, are better answers to the problem than sticks and stones.

    All the best,

    Posted by Adam Burk | October 22, 2010, 11:40 am
  2. Joe

    Thanks for this post. I am reminded of Rafe Esquith’s Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire:

    Hey, you can point a rifle at the kids and they will listen to you, but is that all you want? These days I know better. By creating a firm but friendly refuge, the kids have the opportunity to grow into confident, happy human beings. It’s not easy, and not all the children will ever earn such faith. Some will betray your confidence. Yet if we ask great things of our children, we must show them we believe great things are possible. Make every effort to remove fear from your classroom. Be fair. Be reasonable. You will grow as a teacher, and your students will amaze both you and themselves as they flourish in the safe haven you have built. (12)

    Over the years, I have tried many different ways to develop a classroom culture in which students behaved well for all the right reasons …

    And then I found it. Most teaching victories come as a result of years of difficult and painful labor – there are very few ‘educational eurekas,’ where the lightbulb blazes over your head and you know where to go. But one glorious evening it happened to me.

    I had been planning lessons around my favorite book, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and was reading a study guide that analyzed the novel’s characters in relation to Lawrence Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development. I just loved it. The Six Levels were simple, easy to understand, and, most important, perfectly applicable to teaching young people exactly what i wanted them to learn. I quickly incorporated the Six Levels into my class, and today they are the glue that holds it together. Trust is always the foundation, but the Six Levels are the building blocks that help my kids grow as both students and people …

    I teach my students the Six Levels on the first day of class. I do not expect the kids to actually apply them to their own behavior immediately. Unlike simplistic approaches that tell us, ‘If you follow these twenty-seven rules, you too can have a successful child,’ the Six Levels take a lifetime of effort. They are a beautiful road map, and I am constantly amazed at how well my students respond to them. (13-14)

    For the remainder of the chapter, Esquith elaborates on Kohlberg’s levels, under the following headings:

    Level 1 – I Don’t Want to Get in Trouble

    Level 2 – I Want a Reward

    Level 3 – I Want to Please Somebody

    Level 4 – I Follow the Rules

    Level 5 – I Am Considerate of Other People

    Level 6 – I Have a Personal Code of Behavior and I Follow It

    Esquith’s elaborations are really worth reading, with their wealth of anecdotal detail. The development is, of course, one of moving away from a behavioral basis for behavior (punishment and reward – so common in school), through rule following, toward motivation based on an intrinsic sense of the rightness of a choice. Her points out that Level 6 is difficult to teach, because it is based on a personal code and is often accompanied by attention-deflecting humility. For this reason, he often uses characters from literature, and sometimes as they have been portrayed in film. He refers to Will Kane in High Noon and Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption.

    All the best


    Posted by Simon Kidd | October 23, 2010, 8:25 am

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