How should children be punished?

May 8, 2023 | 07:16 am PT
Giap Van Duong Educator
We were all punished as children, and if you have children, you have surely punished them at some point as well.

For parents and educators like me, the question of how best to punish a child often weighs on our minds.

At home, children can be given time-outs, or made to do chores. Some parents make their children stay home, take away their allowances and electronic devices. Some resort to more violent means, verbally or physically abusing their children.

At school, the most common forms of punishments include reprimanding, calling the parents or suspension. Some teachers also employ more informal punishments like having children clean the classrooms or making them run laps outside.

You can see all kinds of punishments for children, from light-hearted to downright cruel ones. But which are correct? Which means have educational effects while not affecting children’s development in negative ways?

For example, if misbehaving children must do housework, does that mean household chores are no longer a mutual responsibility shared by all family members? If children who break the rules are forced to read more books, then is reading books considered good behavior? If students are suspended from school, won’t they be in an even more precarious situation outside the classroom?

In my experience, most students who are suspended from school end up as eventual dropouts. It means this form of punishment has low educational value, and is simply a method of shifting the responsibility of education from the school to families and society.

However, to help children avoid doing wrong things, the key is to establish a set of rules with them, as well as appropriate punishments, beforehand.

The set of rules and punishments should be mutually agreed upon between the child and the parents. If the child does not know about the rules and the punishments beforehand, punishing them will have little effect, and the child will think that the adults are "cheating."

Children will make mistakes, lots of them. So how do we know exactly how to establish the correct sets of rules? The best way is to teach children principles, such as no lying, no harming others, no using other people’s belongings without consent.

But few adults understand this, so they hurt their children in the process of punishing them. It can be physical pain from the beatings, it can be emotional pain from verbal abuse or ostracism. These punishments are the least effective and leave lifelong consequences.

The important thing is to show children that there are chances to fix mistakes, and there could be rewards for doing so. From my own experience, rewarding good deeds is much more effective and sustainable than dishing out punishments for bad ones.

We’re skimping too much on the rewards and relying too heavily on the punishments. There are people who, for their whole life, have never received a word of encouragement from their parents.

Children need to be given the right and the opportunity to govern themselves, to form moral values of their own, and to figure out the best ways to adjust their behaviors.

Over the course of becoming an adult, making mistakes is natural for a child. We need to create an environment where children feel safe making mistakes and learning from them.

*Giap Van Duong is a Vietnamese educator and former researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Temasek Laboratories.

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