Thursday, September 12, 2013

Carrots and Sticks: Part the Third: Punishment

Originally posted on Friday, January 6, 2012

I started out my third post with "just" a focus on punishment and found it evolving to a more specific topic, which is discipline in school settings. While that's definitely an area I do want to address, this isn't that post, so I copy-pasted it all to some future post for me to work on later. This is hopefully going to be more general. It's also going to be, well, LONG. Go get a cup of coffee or refill your water bottle or whatever blog-reading sustenance you need to get you through here.

I first publicly addressed the idea of not-punishing in a post I did for a friend's blog this past summer. It gave me the chance to really put into words what my position was on traditional punishment and how I came to that place. Most of that was covered in my Carrots and Sticks: Background post, so I'll sum it up here and add some more recent thoughts and some links to back me up.

Parenting a special-needs child is HARD. It's even harder when the needs manifest themselves more behaviorally than physically, because it's so very easy to blame bad parenting for a child's difficulties when the child is acting out rather than, say, being unable to walk. Wheelchairs and Down's Syndrome are visible disabilities, but Sensory Processing Disorder and other neurological issues, not so much, neither to parents nor to others outside the family unit (teachers, relatives, well-intentioned strangers in supermarkets declaring that you should spank your child and teach her her a lesson she'll not soon forget. ::angry face goes here::)

When the light bulb finally went off that it wasn't my parenting at fault, that nothing I had done or was doing was working because my child was neurologically different, my whole world changed. Up to that point, for about 4 years, we'd gone with the Old Paradigm: Reward The Good, Punish The Bad.  Make the child averse to bad behavior through punishment, and make her WANT to be good to get rewarded. But what the heck do you DO with a child for whom rewards 1) don't mean anything and 2) doesn't have the impulse control to keep herself in line for 3 hours of preschool to get the reward, even if it's something she truly desperately DOES want? Believe me, that kid WANTED to go to the pool in the afternoon and swim. She just wasn't able to keep from defending her space, or from falling apart when she was overwhelmed, because everything coming in to her sensory world was so incredibly overwhelming to her - and when I came to get her at preschool and she already knew she'd blown it in the first 15 minutes of being there that morning, she was getting more and more demoralized by her own inability to keep herself in check, not to mention her disappointment at yet another carrot being yanked away from her. This was leading to a child who was very much down on herself, and to a parent-child dynamic that was growing more contentious and downright combative by the day, and it wasn't helping the relationship with her new sister either.

There was the side issue of food and diet as well. The day Bookworm had had a lovely morning at IKEA with me and I treated her to macaroni and cheese for an early lunch (many of these contain artificial yellow food coloring :-() and, astonished at the speed and degree of deterioration, I watched her completely fall apart within 20 minutes of consuming that food, I knew there had to be something else besides the social and sensory issues. Once again, Google was my friend. I found this article by Dianne Craft about gut dysbiosis and probiotics that got us started on a search for dietary help. Probiotics alone didn't solve the problem completely by any means, but they did help to the extent that her teachers noticed a difference in her demeanor on some mornings - but only some. Most mornings were still a struggle for us as a number of factors, including poor sleep (she'd dropped her nap but when she did nap during the day she couldn't sleep at night, so for probably over a year she was chronically overtired, we realized in retrospect) and the sensory stuff and other dietary factors (why we don't do artificial food colorings any more and more information on how changes in our food supply are contributing to a plethora of health issues, see this 19-minute TED talk by Robyn O'Brien, which is worth every minute you will spend watching and learning), she was still regularly falling apart and acting out.

Once I realized that my expectations of her being able to keep it together were barely realistic for ANY 3-year-old, let alone one with sensory processing issues that kept her in a nonstop state of fight-or-flight - no WONDER she was always hitting and scratching! - I realized it was my expectations that had to change, not her behaviors. I had to set NEW parameters for acceptable behavior, and for her ability to cope. I had to help her start small and find success, and to develop coping skills. And because my HMO wasn't willing to admit the existence of SPD at the time and the preschool was unwilling and/or unable to actually implement the things we'd come up with at our numerous parent-teacher conferences (which should have been yet another clue that it really was NOT the place for my child, but I was still pretty thick that way :-(), I would be on my own for most of this process. Not the best news for a parent who was pregnant at the start of the journey and struggling with depression and a newborn in addition to the SPD by the time the light bulb went off who was already overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before her, but when there's no choice, there's no choice - you suck it up and do it, or you don't and you live with the consequences.

So what does this have to do with punishment? EVERYTHING. Absolutely EVERYTHING.

Would you punish a diabetic child for being unable to control an insulin response? Of course not! It's a biological response that the child can't help. Would you punish a child in a wheelchair for not participating in a footrace? Naturally not, for self-evident reasons. If you know a child is unable to read, would you punish her for frustration when presented with a reading task? Probably not - you'd probably be completely understanding and you'd likely be naturally motivated to help her learn to read and cope with the frustration. Yet we regularly punish children for acting out when in the vast majority of cases if not ALL cases, they are acting out because they are unable to cope any other way. They don't (yet) have the ability or the tools to keep themselves in check; they haven't yet been taught appropriate behavior at home so bring inappropriate behaviors to school; they're being fed foods and drinks that are keeping them from being able to control themselves (I keep coming back to the first-grader who gets Coca-Cola with breakfast and lunch at least the majority of the time; I can't speak for supper as that meal isn't eaten at school); they're on medications that interfere with their neurological and emotional function; they have learning disabilities that they're not coping with and so are getting frustrated; neurological issues are keeping them in a constant state of stress and affecting their demeanor and behavior and lowering the point at which they "go off" like a bomb - and these are just a few I can think of off the top of my head as a parent and teacher.

So rather than punishing misbehaviors, often the same ones over and over and over again, doesn't it make MORE sense to find the root cause and address that? Administering punishment can too often be a case of treating symptoms but never the disease. We wouldn't treat cancer by giving pain relief for the pain, or stimulants for the tiredness; we would administer chemotherapy and/or radiation and/or surgery to get rid of the cancer. We don't put Band-Aids on cuts that have gotten infected and hope they go away; we treat the infection to allow for healing to take place. But repeated Time-Outs for the same infractions mean that the cause of the misbehavior has not been addressed, and until it is, the treatment phase is going to take a lot longer than it has to, if not last forever and result in no success at all.

We use this carrot-and-stick approach on dogs: we swat them when they piddle in the house, and we hug them and give them doggie biscuits and hug them and say, "Whooza good GOGGIE?!?" when they do their business outside instead of on our best Oriental carpets. But our children are humans, not puppies! As intelligent as dogs are, we have further powers of intellect that we can use, even as very small children, so that we do not have to resort to simple reward-and-punishment dog-training-style discipline. So here's the skinny on punishment and how it works on humans:

Punishment, like rewards, teaches children (and adults!) to act in a certain way to avoid punishment, NOT that a behavior is just the right thing to do. Example: I am not a shoplifter because I know that stealing, that taking without permission and compensation, is wrong; I don't not-shoplift so I don't go to jail. My moral compass is different from someone who only keep their hands in their pockets in a store to avoid jail time. The child who doesn't interrupt a class or doesn't hurt his sister because those things don't cross his mind or because he's been given the tools to respond to occasions where he otherwise might do those things is a different child entirely from the one who keeps to himself to avoid punishment, or worse, becomes more crafty and devises ways to misbehave to avoid punishment. This video from Alfie Kohn sums it up quite neatly.

What punishment does NOT do is to go to the root of the problem. It does NOT magically give a child coping tools he or she didn't have before the punishment. It does NOT address underlying social or neurological or family dynamic issues. It does NOT rule out medical problems, including food reactions, that might be exacerbating behavior problems. It does NOT contribute to healthy and supportive relationships between children and adult caregivers, teachers, or parents, or between kids and other kids.

Punishment DOES, though, take a lot of time and effort and energy, especially when it's being used over and over again without success - a LOT. Ask any teacher who has a comprehensive behavior management system in her classroom or his school and spends more time managing student behavior than teaching some days. And frankly, IMO, most punishment that's given as a deterrent to future misbehavior is disrespectful. It's no better than smacking a piddling puppy to train it to pee outside, and our children are better than that. (It might be argued that so are puppies, but that's another post for another time. :-)) WE aren't dog-trainers. We are parents, and teachers, and nannies, and caregivers, and we can have better and more effective tools at our disposal

So why do we persist in it? Well, it helps us adults feel that we have Done Something About It (whatever IT is in this context). Sure, we've done Something. But have we done the most effective Something? The best Something? The most appropriate Something? Statistically speaking, probably not.
I can hear the cries of protest already (and some of these are directly from the above-referenced-but-now-silent guest blog I did, while others are new):

“But my child doesn’t have any special needs! My child is totally normal, so shouldn’t we be able to use the ‘normal’ things like sticker charts and time-outs?”

Well, you could, but if you don’t have to, if you can base your whole parent-child-family dynamic on something that’s more pleasant and constructive for everyone involved, I don’t see a reason to even go there. (Besides, what exactly constitutes a "totally normal" child?)

“What do you mean, no punishments? Or rewards? How in the world do you get by without the sticker charts? And don’t kids need a good smack now and again?”

Um….. no. No, they don’t, not if our experiences with one pretty neurotypical Spirited child and one possibly Aspergers child are any indication. All that Time-Out, for example, “teaches” a child is that the behavior will get him or her a Time Out. It doesn’t address whatever the root cause of the misbehavior was, whether it’s because potatoes make them literally gag, or it honestly didn’t occur to them that what they did was a problem (you’d be surprised), or they’re nursing the chickenpox (and BOY will you feel guilty for punishing when the fever and spots hit you a day later!), or their brother or sister really DID “start it.” Addressing the root CAUSE of the behavior vastly reduces the chance of it coming back.

“So how in the world do you get them to listen?”

Short answer: I treat my kids the way I, as an adult, want to be treated. That doesn’t mean they’re privy to all my thoughts, of course. I do this in an age-appropriate way. But really, don’t we ALL, regardless of our ages, want to be treated with some respect, with courtesy, with polite words? And if you haven’t yet heard your child sound JUST LIKE YOU when you’ve lost your temper, just listen when she talks to her dolls or stuffed toys and thinks you’re not listening, or listen around the corner to how he treats his baby brother when you’ve gone to the toilet – YOU WILL.

"But working out causes behind misbehaviors is a lot of work, and it takes too much time!"

Yes. Yes, it can indeed be time-consuming to sort through all the things that might be contributing to a child's behavior and then addressing it - ideally, with the child. But, IMO, that's what Parenting IS. We have to provide our kids with more than a home and 3 squares a day. We have to guide them, we have to sort out when things are hard for them and help them get through things until they're ready to do it on their own. We don't just give our toddlers a pile of food and expect them to prepare it without guidance and instruction, or put them in front of the washing machine with a load of laundry and no direction. By the same token, we can't expect them to be hard-wired to cope with every situation, or to even understand their own behavioral and/or biological parts in these scenarios without adult help and guidance.

"But my doctor/pediatrician/mother/grandmother/neighbor/kid's teacher says we need to be stricter!"

I'll ask you point blank here: who is the expert on YOUR child here? Who has been with your child from the moment of birth, has seen and endured the reflux, the tantrums, the overloads, the food reactions, the whole nine yards? In most cases, it's YOU, the primary caregiver. (In some cases this isn't the parent, but a guardian, grandparent, foster parent or other caregiver who spends the majority of time with the child.) Many people on that list, especially if they're older than you are, are working from older paradigms, with less information than we have today about food sensitivities and neurological differences that can make the difference between Heaven and a nightmare, parenting-wise. Doctors are constantly being bombarded with information as new research shows new treatments - or the beneficial effects of alternate treatments that may be more effective than the pharmaceutical advertisements that flood their mailboxes on a daily basis and may not have had the hours in a day to keep current on research what with seeing patients and all. YOU are the expert on YOUR child. That isn't to say that others' advice is useless or has no place, but in the end, if you have misgivings about something you've been told to do, it's not a bad idea to work out why you have issues with it.

So in our home, “please” and “thank you” and “Could you please…” are the rule. We do it, they copy us, and it’s all good. And when they get “sassy,” we take a break, sit down, and talk about how “attitude” causes people to get angry and hostile (yes, my kids know these words!) and defensive, and we call to mind occasions where it happened and we work out BETTER ways to ask, to tell, to relay information and requests. There are times when my kids have a different idea or plan, and I take the time to listen to it and when it’s feasible and reasonable, we may do that instead. If they don't put on their coats when it's cold, they go outside for a while without them - and when they ask for their coats through shivering lips, I hand over the coats and it's the last time that happens. (This is an example of Natural Consequences, as opposed to Punitive Consequences, which is just a fancy term for Punishment.) It doesn’t often happen overnight, but 9 times out of 10 talking and behaving this way works, even with a child with social delays – possibly BETTER with her, as she now has concrete reasons she can grasp as to why this action or behavior or tone of voice isn’t socially acceptable, instead of guessing wrong and getting laid into.

And the next round of protest begins: “But if I give my kids an inch, they take a mile!”

Well…. at first, if kids are used to having to take that mile to feel as though they’ve got anywhere, yeah, they very well might. If you had to argue with your spouse for even an hour or two out, wouldn’t YOU be tempted to take the whole afternoon, and maybe the evening as well? But if you knew it wouldn’t be a struggle to get that hour or two now and again, there wouldn’t be a need to scrap for it. Again, it doesn’t happen overnight, but it CAN happen, barring something deeper underlying the issues like a clinical disorder – and there is NO punitive parenting technique which will help with that unless instilling fear is the main – or only – tool in your arsenal.

I won’t lie: parenting this way is VERY time-consuming especially starting out. There is a HUGE and STEEP learning curve. But it is also a thousand times more rewarding than the whole carrot-and-stick thing. There are days I fail miserably because for whatever reason *I* was the one unable to cope – and then we re-boot the next day (or later that same day, once we've all come down from our defensive places), talk together about what went wrong and how we can work on it together. There are also more days than I care to admit when I treat my kids respectfully and then completely fail when talking to my husband and helpmate with the same consideration – but that’s important too: he wants to be respected, of course, and the kids need good examples of how adults treat each other if they’re going to develop healthy relationships when they choose life partners. It's a journey, a long one, and I'm on it every single day, some days more successfully than others. I spend more time with my kids, WAY more hands-on time with them, than I used to – and I could do more, to be honest, even as introverted as I am. I do things WITH them, often when I don’t even want to, and WOW, does it pay off!

I leave you with these videos to enjoy and to think about:
Carrots and Sticks in Business and Real Life (Diane Sawyer interviewing Daniel Pink)
Rewards and Punishments in Schools (compilation of different educational speakers, and a jumping-off point for my thoughts about carrots and sticks in school settings)

So, I'm curious. Have your experiences borne this out at all? Or have you found success with traditional carrots and sticks, like sticker charts and time-outs? Have you wondered about alternatives to combative adult-child relationships (or even adult-adult relationships) and are still starting your search for a better way? I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences if you're comfortable sharing them. On to the next post about school discipline....

1 comment:

  1. I've found time-outs a very useful tool, but the point of them at our house is not punishment. It's removal from interaction with other people so that the person can take deep breaths and reset. Parents can put themselves in time-outs too. We talk in a constructive manner about what happened, their emotions about the situation, and what they could have done to handle those emotions instead of what just happened. I listen and try to make sure they are told that their emotions are real and valid and give hugs before they come out. If the time-outs are done in this way, then the child should learn to identify when she needs a time-out and apply it in her own life pro-actively... and it's helped me with work situations where I realized I just needed to walk away from the situation rather than continuing to engage in a highly emotional state.


Please keep it clean. Differences of opinion aren't a problem for me. Rudeness is. Thankyouverymuch. :-)