I Was Punished, and I Turned Out Fine

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by Dr. Jane Nelsen

How fine is “fine”? Fine is relative. Yes, most of us turned out just “fine.” We can laugh at some of the punishments we received as a child—and even say we deserved them. However, if we had been allowed to learn from our mistakes instead of being made to pay for them, is it possible we might be even better than “fine”? 

Punishment is designed to make children “pay” for their mistakes. Discipline that teaches (the definition we prefer) is designed to help children learn from their mistakes in an atmosphere of encouragement and support. In the following story, Stan was led through a process that helped him understand the difference between punitive and non-punitive (positive) discipline. 

Stan told his parenting group about a time he cheated on a fifth-grade test. He said, “I was stupid enough to write some answers on the palm of my hand. The teacher saw me open my fist to find an answer. She grabbed my paper and tore it up in front of everyone in the class. I received an "F" on the test and was publicly called a cheater. The teacher told my parents and my father gave me a whipping and grounded me for a month. I never cheated again, and I certainly deserved the "F".

The group leader helped him explore this experience to help everyone in the class see if there might be a more productive way to handle this situation. 

Leader: Does everyone agree with Stan that he deserved the "F"?

Group:  Yes

Leader: Would the "F" have been enough to teach him the consequences of his choices, or did he need the punishment also?

Group: Hmmmmm

Leader: What do you think, Stan? How did you feel about getting the "F" for cheating?

Stan: I felt very guilty and very embarrassed.

Leader: What did you decide from that?

Stan: That I wouldn’t do it again.

Leader: When we hear this, we may think, “See, it worked.” But let’s explore a little further and see how what may have seemed to “work” for the moment, may have had some harmful long-term results. Stan, what did you decide after receiving the whipping (punishment)? 

Stan:  That I was a disappointment to my parents. I still worry about disappointing them. When I think about it, I realize how much I live in fear and self-doubt.

Leader: So how did the punishment help you?

Stan: Well, I had already decided I wouldn’t cheat again. The guilt and embarrassment of getting caught in front of others was enough to teach me that lesson. Actually, the worry about disappointing my parents is a real burden.

Leader: If you had a magic wand and could change the script of that event, how would you change it? How would you change what anyone said or did?

Stan: Well, I wouldn’t cheat.

Leader: And after that?

Stan: I don’t know.

Leader:  Who has any ideas you could give Stan? It is usually easier to see possibilities when you aren’t emotionally involved. What could Stan’s teacher or parents have done or said that would have demonstrated kind and firm discipline that would be effective short-term and long-term?

Group Member (Sylvia): I’m a teacher, and I’m learning a lot from this. The teacher could have taken Stan aside and asked him why he was cheating instead of embarrassing him in front of the whole class.

Leader:  Stan, what would you have answered to that?

Stan: That I wanted to pass the test.

Sylvia: Then I could appreciate his desire to pass and ask him how he felt about cheating as a way to accomplish that.

Stan:  I could honestly say that it didn’t feel good and would promise never to do it again.

Sylvia: I would then tell him he would have to receive an "F" for this test but that I was glad he had learned that cheating doesn’t feel good and isn’t helpful in the long run. I would then ask him to prepare a plan for me about what he would do to pass the next test.

Stan: I would still feel guilty and embarrassed about cheating, but I would also appreciate the kindness along with the firmness. Now I see what that means.

Leader: What Stan is teaching us is that it can be very effective to allow children to experience the consequences of their choices without adding consequences (poorly disguised punishments). Lectures just instill a sense of doubt and shame. Helping children explore the consequences of their choices through curiosity questions can be very empowering because this helps children think for themselves and come to their own conclusions in a friendly and supportive atmosphere.

So Stan, now do you have any ideas how you could use your magic wand to change what your parents did?

Stan:  It would have been nice if they had acknowledged how guilty and embarrassed I felt. They could have empathized about what a tough lesson that was for me to learn. Then they could express their faith in me to learn from my experience and to do the right thing in the future. They could reassure me that they would love me no matter what, but that they hoped I wouldn’t disappoint myself in the future. Wow, what a concept--to worry more about disappointing myself than my parents. I find that very encouraging.

Leader: Thank you Stan. You have just mentioned several Positive Discipline concepts and tools:

  • Positive Discipline does not mean letting children “get away” with their behavior.
  • Positive Discipline does mean helping children explore the consequences of their choices in a supportive and encouraging environment so that lasting growth and learning can take place by using the following tools:
  • Validating feelings instead of scolding or rescuing.
  • Using curiosity questions to help children explore the consequences of their choices (how they feel, what they learned, what they can do in the future) instead of shaming them through lectures and telling them how they should feel, what they should learn, and what they should do.
  • Having faith in children that they can learn from their mistakes and figure out what to do in the future when encouraged to do so in a friendly and supportive atmosphere.
  • Inviting children to come up with a plan (focusing on solutions) to solve the problem.
  • Expressing unconditional love.

Most people turned out “fine” even if they were punished—and they might have learned even more had they received both kindness and firmness to learn from mistakes.

Turning out “fine” isn’t the issue. Are you satisfied with “fine,” or do you want your children to have the kind of nurturing that helps them bloom into the best people they can possibly be? You nurture the best in your children when your methods meet the five criteria for Positive Discipline.

  1. Helps children feel a sense of connection? (Belonging and Significance)
  2. Respectful and encouraging? (Kind and firm at the same time)
  3. Effective long-term? (Punishment works short term, but has negative long-term results.)
  4. Teaches valuable social and life skills for good character? (Respect, concern for others, problem-solving, cooperation)
  5. Invites children to discover how capable they are? (Encourages the constructive use of personal power and autonomy)

Are you satisfied with having your children turn out “just fine,” or would you prefer that they feel capable and empowered to be the best that they can be?

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