Why should I? Stage 1: to avoid punishment

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

Stage 1: punishment orientation. Toddler age onwards.

  • In the pre-school years, children do not have their own personal code of morality.  “The right thing” is what adults want you to do, and “the wrong thing” is what you are punished for.  
  • So a good action at this stage of morality is one that avoids punishment. 

Punishment is our most basic tool to try to help our children behave appropriately, and it works at a level that even toddlers can understand.  It is a very effective, strongly linking an unwanted action with an unpleasant outcome, making it less likely the child will behave that way again.  In this sense, punishment can be seen as a promise or a deterrence…a predictable response if a certain behaviour occurs.

The tool of punishment continues to be effective all through development and into adulthood.  There is no point in having a rule if there is not some defined cost for breaking that rule.  As a society, we have developed societal rules (laws) for what cannot be done, and each law is connected with a punishment for breaking it. 

Fortunately in a family there are multiple more subtle and loving ways to address behaviour.   One if these is to have a regular family meeting where value-based rules are discussed. For those who have not read chapter 9, watched the chapter 9 playlist, or would like a reminder of it, I have attached the 11 minute video here.  When discussing good and bad, your whole family needs to be aware and united on what the cost is for bad behaviour; “What’s it going to take for us to obey this rule?” Then if the cost has to be applied, it’s implementation is business not personal.  

From primary school age onwards, the need to regularly invoke punishment as a reason to behave indicates more mature moral approaches have failed to develop.  So though we should always have punishment as an option, it is best if it is a motivator of last resort.

The more we use punishment the more stage 1 morality is reinforced. This is problematic the older they get. We don’t want our children to have the view “It’s only wrong if you get caught”.  Some adults have not progressed beyond stage one, where the morality of an action is judged only by its direct consequences on themselves. An adult functioning at stage 1 morality is generally untroubled by cheating, lying and deceiving…until they get caught.

We want to help our children move beyond stage 1 morality. Over the next few posts we will look at the alternatives to punishment we can use when talking about moral behaviour and rules, and particularly ideas around values based rules.

In summary, if punishment is to be helpful

  • Make sure the parents are united
  • Make it business, not personal to avoid toxic shame
  • Make it a clear promise all are aware of so it deters
  • Be consistent and not hypocritical
  • Make it the last option after trying more mature approaches.  

NB: if we are angry when addressing bad behaviour, then punishment is often the first tool we reach for.  In this annoyed state, our child is not a person to be understood and helped, they are just a problem, “they have hurt me and I want to hurt them back”.  This is of course very reptilian and thus quite normal…but unhelpful.  You should never get down on yourself for using punishment first; just aware that you’ve missed an opportunity for them to morally grow.  In the end you may need to use punishment if they have rejected all your attempts to help them be motivated by more morally mature means. But you can be confident that you gave them the more grown up options, and when the promised punishment is enacted, it is not personal, it is just the business of our family.  In this way, punishment and making mistakes are not so shaming to the child.