Monday, June 08, 2015

Punishment Doesn't Work

I attended Meadowfield Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina. The worst punishment I recall being meted out was compulsory standing in the front of the classroom beside the teacher for some period of time. There were a few kids, mostly boys, who spent more time up there than others. I can see their faces now: ashen or red, downcast eyes, active with anxiety. They felt shame. 

There were a couple boys, however, who spent so much time up there, probably for typical 6-year-old boy goofing off, that they had either completely overcome their shame or were acting as if they had. One guy in particular, Chuck, even looked like he was having fun. He used his shaming punishment as a platform to be even more naughty, mostly by rolling his eyes or doing other small things that made it look like he was having fun. The rest of us knew enough not to laugh, although there was enough unsuppressed snickering that Miss McCutcheon suspected something.

I liked the cut of Chuck's jib. I thought I might like to try the experience and so, one day in a spontaneous blurt of a moment, I did something that I knew would result in the punishment.

I used my moment standing up there beside Miss McCutcheon to roll my eyes and engage in a little comical shrugging, one-upping Chuck, I think. I then proceeded to never stand up there again, a luxury of executive function that, sadly, many of my classmates hadn't yet developed. 

There was a second level of punishment at Meadowfield Elementary, at least if the rumors were to be believed. It was said that Mr. Turner, our principal, had a paddle in his office, one through which he'd drilled holes so he could "swing it faster." It was a topic of much conversation, although I never met anyone who had experienced the paddle first hand. Today, I suspect there was no such paddle, although it was a credible threat because most of us had experienced at least a little corporal punishment at home, some even suffering the pain of "Daddy's belt" or a switch cut from a tree.

I'm sure after posting this I'll learn that there are still some Dickensian schools where children are whipped for their misdemeanors, but for the most part, that particular threat is no longer part of school culture, even if there is still a sizable percentage of parents who spank their children. As I sat working a crossword at the airport last week, I heard a young mother of a girl who appeared to be about 18 months threaten spankings. At one point she even snatched up her little girl for some minor offense and carried her off to the bathroom, where, I'm afraid, a hitting punishment was administered. It sickened me, but the fact that the little girl returned as cheery as she'd left gave me hope that the mother couldn't follow through and was just making a show for the older relatives with whom she was traveling. Still, for the next half hour or so that mother several times warned her girl, "Do we have to go into the bathroom?" an echo of Miss McCutcheon's warning question, "Do you want to be sent to Mr. Turner's office?"

That said, I think it's safe to say that spanking is less prevalent today than it was back in the 1960's, and it's quite rare as an institutional punishment. More common, around here at least, are punishments in which privileges are withheld for "bad behavior," such as having to stay indoors while the others go out for recess or maybe some version of a "time out."

I'm not a fan of punishments of any sort, mainly because they don't work. Or at least they don't work the way we think they do. Yes, since I'm bigger and stronger than a child, I can bully him into doing what I want, but what I'm teaching him, no matter how many times I say "I'm doing this for your own good," is that bigger and stronger people, those with more power, get to tell the weak what to do. Even when children comply in the face of these threats, they aren't doing so because they've seen the wisdom of their ways, but rather because of the external "motivation" of punishment. I want the children I teach to be internally motivated to do the right thing, rather than to simply obey, and you just can't get there through punishment.

While I don't expect that I'll live to see a world in which all punishments have been relegated to the ashcan of history, I'm happy to know that corporal punishment appears to be, too slowly perhaps, falling out of favor. At the same time I feel I've seen an increase in another form of punishment, extreme versions of Miss McChutcheon's methods, that are gaining popularity: shaming. I suspect we've all seen it, parents who post pictures on Facebook of naughty children holding signs announcing their sins or parents who make their children do or wear humiliating things in public as a "consequence" for some behavior or other. I've heard adults chuckle over these kinds of things, but believe me, this is no improvement over spanking. Indeed, this sort shaming punishment can be far, far worse. 

A few days ago a 15 second video showed up online. It showed a young girl who appeared to be twelve or thirteen years old. She's standing in a room looking at the phone camera. She appears to be afraid. The camera then shows the floor where there is a pile of long black hair. A taunting male voice says, "The consequences of getting messed up? Man, you lost all that beautiful hair. Was it worth it?" The girl stares at her hair on the floor. She very quietly says, "No." "How many times did I warn you?" She almost inaudibly says, "Twice." He then says, "Okay," as if he has proved a point. The video ends.

Days later, this girl got out of her grandmother's car and jumped from a freeway overpass to her death.

When I read that heartbreaking story, I remembered Miss McCutcheon's classroom, not my own experience or that of Chuck, but rather the anguished faces of the other children for whom it was indeed shameful to be singled out for a punishment. How awful it must have been for them to be exposed like that in front of everyone for their inability to live up to some sort of arbitrary, adult-imposed behavioral code. Shame is a horrible, painful thing.

No one will ever know how large a role that shaming video played in the young Tacoma girl's suicide, but I don't think anyone can deny that it was a contributing factor, and it's impossible to not at least suspect it was a trigger. The father has since said he didn't intend the video to be uploaded to the internet, that was done by someone else without his knowledge, but shame was clearly his intent, and tragedy was the result.

Apparently, Child Protective Services has been called in, but as sad and angry as this makes me, I wish no additional punishment upon this father, he is already living in a hell of his own creation, an extreme natural consequence.

Punishment doesn't work.

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Carolyn said...

When adults slap, punch, shove, or kick someone without the other's consent we call it assault. It is even worse when an adult does it to a child who has no way of defending himself. There are so many other ways of disciplining that you don't need to resort to this type of punishment. Parents usually do it out of anger which can get out of control very quickly. You should never punish a child when you are angry, but wait until you are calm and talk about what happened first. I think children want to follow the rules, but some of them aren't mature enough to sit still or pay attention. It is up to the teacher to find ways to help that child learn without scaring them or embarrassing them for something they have very little control of. If children aren't paying attention and the teacher has to constantly reprimand them, that teacher is probably a bad teacher.

MissFifi said...

I don't get the whole video shaming thing. Humiliation does suck and maybe there is a place for it, but I feel like everyone forgets just how volatile our teen years really are. When you look back on them now you realize most of the drama was self made, but when you are in it, it is very serious and managing it was hard.
Why one would cut their kids hair off I don't know, but I doubt that father is sleeping well.