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.