The Danger of Using Punishment Instead of Discipline

This week I had two clients tell me that their kids had been given detentions at school and I started thinking about the usefulness of detention. This led me to ponder the differences between punishment and effective discipline.

Kids need to to be taught right from wrong. They need to understand that actions have consequences and that certain rules have to be followed.

But how can this be taught without causing more harm than good?

I read in The Age last week that a boy in the northern suburbs of Melbourne had brought a knife to school. The disciplinary action reported was that he received a suspension from school. Intriguingly, the principal was quoted as saying, “What’s happening in our little person’s head and mind and life?” You can read the full article here.

Bringing a knife to school would have been a very serious incident for the school to manage and I am sure they would have taken steps to find out the underlying reasons behind it. From the principal’s quoted question, at least it appears that they are probably heading in the right direction to genuinely help the child.

Parenting expert Elain Wilson makes a distinction between punishment and discipline. She suggests that punishment is based on control and power by using pain or unpleasantness to stop the behaviour (for a short time), but it does not teach the desired behaviour.

By this standard, detention is punishment. Is it an effective way to correct behaviour? Possibly for some kids … but for others it could be quite damaging and even have the reverse effect!

Wilson suggests that punishment may stop unwanted behaviour in the short term, but it also creates fear and sneaky behaviour. Punishment uses pain and unpleasantness, builds resentment, encourages deception and can damage self esteem.

On the other hand, discipline teaches the desired behaviour and values, helps to develop self control, uses praise and encouragement and teaches responsibility. The full information sheet can be read here.

I often think back to my first year of teaching when I was trying to control the “colourful students”. When I asked senior teachers about using detention for misbehaviour in the classroom, the response was, “classroom management is the teacher’s responsibility, there are no detentions for that!”

(In fact, there were detentions given in very extreme cases, but they wanted us to use effective classroom management techniques, rather than punishment, as they knew how ineffective it can be!).

I didn’t think that much about it at the time but, upon reflection, I can appreciate where they were coming from. (As it turns out, the “school down the road” really did have some valuable lessons to teach! 😉 )

Shame on you, detention, with your punitive approach, unpleasantness and (potential) abuse of power!

Effective discipline is what society really needs. It should begin at home and be reflected in our schools.

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