Behaviour happens for a reason. Punishing it ignores the reason.
‘Old school’ thinking
We’ve been taught that if we don’t give consequences when our children mess up, they won’t “learn their lesson”.
This assumes children are inherently “bad” and don’t want to do well. It begins with the assumption that they prefer to misbehave unless we put them in their place.
When you think about it that way…
Seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?
“Kids do well if they can.”— Dr. Ross Greene
Yes, children get upset or angry and act out. This is dysregulation and stress behaviour, this is not behaviour with malice aforethought… meaning they didn’t plan or want to misbehave.
The behaviour was impulsive, emotion-driven, or they lacked the skills to handle the situation more effectively in that moment.
Instead of reacting with anger and punishment, believing we must provide adult-induced consequences in order for children to learn from their mistakes, we need to get curious.
Why did they behave that way?
- Were they overwhelmed?
- Did they become dysregulated, and need help regulating their emotions?
- Do they need a specific set of skills in order to handle that situation differently next time?
There are a myriad reasons which could underly the behaviour, and if we simply punish the surface behaviour, we aren’t seeking to understand it, we’re simply punishing a child for lacking skills.
Where does that lead?
I don’t know about you, but if I feel I’m being punished for something I couldn’t control, I get angry.
When I was new to the field, I was employed as a youth worker in residential care (group homes). I worked with youth and teens with trauma histories who were living in a state of near-constant dysregulation, and their behaviours were very challenging as a result.
In group care, most staff are fairly green, meaning they don’t have a lot of experience. This is usually because it doesn’t pay well, despite the complexity of care and support these youth require.
Anyway, my point is, most of us were fresh out of College, or otherwise relatively new to the field, yet our management was the opposite of supportive.
Whenever things went wrong in the house, instead of evaluating where their training (or lack thereof) was inadequate, or where their staff needed more support, we were simply blamed and berated and admonished to do better.
How? How could we do better? We were told what we had done wrong, what not to do, but weren’t given the tools and support we needed to succeed. We became frustrated with this treatment and staff quickly began to burnout or choose to leave.
This is exactly what we do to kids: we scold and punish them, but rarely do we listen to them and try to get to the bottom of what happened. We expect them to know better without necessarily showing them how to do better.
By the way, the best way to show children how to do better is by role-modelling it and setting an example.
So when we’re yelling, lecturing, and punishing behaviour we don’t like — guess what we’re teaching them?
A long, long (long) time ago, I was a tween at Canada’s Wonderland, a theme park with rollercoasters and candy floss and all that good stuff. I was in line for pizza and there were three kids in front of me. Two of them looked to be slightly younger than me (probably around 10), and I’d guess the youngest child was around 6.
Based on context, I surmised that the two 10-ish year olds were friends, and one of them was the older sibling to the younger child. Little brother was getting antsy and climbing around on the bars meant to delineate the route those in line should follow.
(I definitely did that as a kid… and sometime as an “adult” too).
I can’t remember exactly what happened next, but at some point the over-stimulated, probably hungry younger sibling hit their older sibling. The older kid (gently) slapped their younger sibling’s hand and scolded them, “don’t hit!”
He then turned to his friend and said, “y’know, it’s kinda weird, we tell him not to hit, and then we hit him for hitting…”
C’mon guys, if a 10 year old can reach that conclusion so easily, we can certainly do better.
Please know, when I say ‘we’, I include myself. I have learned better, so I am doing better, but I was certainly raised with the attitude that kids need to be put in their place, lest they run out of control.
There’s a significant difference between discipline — setting boundaries, providing guidance, and teaching skills — and punishment.
There is extensive research, including hard science about the neurobiology and neurodevelopment of children, which tells us that the former is much more effective than the latter.
Curiosity did not kill the cat, in fact, it made the cat wise. He is an enlightened cat, a Canny and Cunning Cat, if you will — or if you won’t. Cats don’t really care what we think.
© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
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Impulsivity: It’s A Neurodivergent Thing.
Punishing Unwanted Behaviour Just Makes it Worse