When we study the concept of punishment from a historical perspective, it turns out that punishment is the legacy we carry from our prehistoric ancestors. As the first humanoid beings gained increasing understanding and control of their world, there remained phenomena that were beyond their control; especially in nature: thunder, rain, drought, conception, death, etc.
They assumed that there was a humanlike but bigger power in play and man devised gods in the image of man, as personified figures of power and authority. These first humans tried to control the godly powers by offering sacrifices and blessings of harvest, cattle, and even people. Alas, these natural phenomena kept occurring in unpredictable ways leading people to believe that they were doing wrong and consequently were being punished by their gods.
From prehistoric times until today, people have thought that he who has power over someone else has the authority to punish in an often arbitrary fashion. For centuries, this idea has been deeply rooted in the human psyche, and we can see it reflected in our relationships with family members, on the field as well as in the workplace. We still are acting out this power and punishment play so many millennia later.
Punishment Isn’t What it First Appears
We have all experienced how punishment can help to stop unwanted or inappropriate behaviour; be it as the offender, the punisher or an observer. Every time we dish out or receive discipline, and the idea that punishment is helpful gets reinforced. However, this fallacy only holds true for the immediate future.
When we look beyond what is apparently inappropriate behaviour, we discover feelings of frustration, injustice, and anxiety within the punished child. As a result, the child feels alienated and is likely to display more extreme inappropriate behaviour in the future. The adult, or punisher in this situation, also feels frustrated and angry with the situation and is likely to punish even more.
The adult and child thus find themselves in a vicious circle of frustration and isolation which I call the cycle of alienation.
Sanctioning: An Alternative to Punishment
When a child expresses inappropriate behaviour – deliberate or not – the adult sees his/her relationship with the child at risk. As it turns out, adults get hurt by this behaviour as it jeopardises their innermost desire to be emotionally and morally connected to their kin.
For this reason, I suggest a sanction as the alternative to punishment.
Etymologically the word sanction comes from the Latin word ‘sacer’ from which we recognise the English word ‘sacred’. In this context, a sanction means to make whole again.
If your child’s behaviour is inappropriate or unwanted, you should not punish the child. Rather attempt to restore the relationship while it is at risk. The crucial ingredient to a strong sanction is “I-centered communication”. For example, tell the child what effect their behaviour has on you. Invite the child to adjust their behaviour, so it no longer makes you feel upset. This experience of honesty and equal respect leads to restoration, reinforcing the connection between adult and child.
Why Social Connection is Essential to the Future of Education and Parenting
“Relationships and emotional connections are fundamental to meeting our psychological need for belonging. “
We are social beings and that why it is important to respect our relational and emotional bonds as our origin and also our purpose. Placing connectedness at the centre of education and parenting can lead to a break in the cycle of alienation and power play, leading to a new generation of children who are emotionally intelligent and authentically respect others.
A Take Home Message
In our modern society we find we are still holding onto the mold of archaic patterns of perception. Power is a driving force in how we negotiate with our world, raise our children and educate future generations. Isn’t it time for a change?
Replacing punishment by sanctioning is an easy way to bring more emotional stability and respect in the long run. This is the time for transformation; when what we need is more emotional agility, peace, and stablility.
This article is a summarised version of the book ‘SACRED SANCTION – Sense and nonsense of punishment in parenting and education‘ by Gerrit De Moor. The book was originally written in Dutch in 2013 and is now available in English on Amazon.
About the Author
Alongside being an author, Gerrit De Moor is the Founder and Chairman of the Belgium branch of The Virtues Project International Association, a global grassroots initiative inspiring others the practice virtues in everyday life. His dream is to spark a global revolution of kindness, justice, and integrity in more than 100 countries. If you are interested, you can learn about Gerrit and The Virtues Project International Association here.