When Is a Punishment Too Harsh?
Understanding the line between teaching and shaming.
A few days ago, a friend of mine reached out to me via email. She wanted me to weigh in on a parenting situation that was causing disagreement among her friends. She wrote (and gave me permission to share):
One of my friend’s daughters had prom last weekend. While she was finishing up getting dressed and waiting for her prom date to arrive for photos, she got a phone call from the boy, who attends another school. He said that he was being grounded by his parents and could not take her to prom. My friend immediately called the boy’s mom, who said a school administrator had called her to report that her son forged her signature in order to go to the library during class time to finish a research paper. He is a good kid, A+ student, first offense. His parents decided that this bad deed warranted a two-week grounding, effective immediately. My friend let the mom have it, saying that she could have started the punishment after the prom, because it now affects her daughter, who spent the evening crying her eyes out before attending prom alone.
Needless to say, we had quite a debate over this…. Should you punish a good kid for a minor offense? Should the consequences of a misdeed affect innocent people? Isn’t it as important to teach your kids to fulfill their obligations? We must have talked about this for an hour and it got heated!
I got the email while working on something else, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I want to share my thoughts about it, with the caveat that of course, I do not know all the details here. And I don’t know the context in which this happened. Depending on the details, my take on the situation might change. But I’ll share my thoughts given how my friend characterized it and some assumptions I’ve made that I’ll unpack as I go along.
First, I want to address the boy’s infraction — the forging of his parents’ signature to go to the library during class time and finish a paper. You could argue that this isn’t a big deal and that his intentions here weren’t “bad,” in that he was just trying to fulfill a school assignment. But I do think it’s crucial for kids to learn that forging signatures isn’t OK. Forging is a federal crime that can be punishable as a felony, and kids need to know and respect that. So I can understand why the boy’s parents might have wanted to instill in him that this was a serious infraction in an attempt to ensure that he never did it again.
Still, we can impart serious information to our kids without having to punish them harshly. One thing that’s important to emphasize here is that the point of discipline is to teach. In fact, the word comes from the the Latin word discipulus, meaning “pupil.” What we want to do when we discipline our kids is to ensure that they learn something from their choice or experience, so that they make better choices in the future.
Sometimes, consequences help us accomplish that. Let’s face it — throughout life, we all learn important life lessons based on the consequences of our actions. So it makes sense that we might sometimes want to ensure that our kids experience consequences, too. I’ve written before about the kinds of consequences that tend to work best with kids — natural consequences and logical consequences.
A natural consequence is something that kids experience as a direct, natural result of their behavior or choice — if they refuse to eat dinner, they later feel hungry. It’s not engineered or contrived. A logical consequence, on the other hand, directly stems from the choice your kid made but is engineered to have an immediate effect. If you catch your kid with the iPad during screen-free time, a logical consequence might be that they lose their iPad privileges for a day.
This all said, we can often discipline effectively without consequences. When my daughter came to me in tears a few weeks ago and admitted she’d spilled her drink on the couch, and kept apologizing and offered to clean it up herself, I recognized that she was already learning from her mistake. She felt terrible and was trying to take responsibility for it. Without my asking, she promised to never bring drinks onto the couch again. There was no need to tack on an additional consequence. She had already learned a lesson.
In deciding a course of action, it’s also important consider whether a child “should have known better.” All too often — and I do this too!!! — we yell at or punish our kids for things that they really, truly might not have known were unacceptable. Every time my kids do something that I consider to be “breaking the rules,” I stop and ask myself: Is it reasonable to expect that they knew that this wasn’t allowed? Or is it possible that I never explicitly taught them that this wasn’t an okay thing to do?
When it comes to the boy in this example, there are two key pieces of information we don’t have. We don’t know whether he “knew better” — had anyone ever imparted to him just how unacceptable forging is? — and we don’t know how he reacted when he was caught. Was he remorseful? Did he laugh it off and roll his eyes at his parents? Those two details would, for me, shape how I disciplined him. If he was remorseful, and especially if he hadn’t known forging was so bad, then I might not even need to engineer further consequences. My friend’s description of him as “a good kid, A+ student, first offense” makes me think he’s a bit of a people-pleaser and probably felt pretty bad after being caught. This kid might already have learned plenty from the experience of being caught and chastised by a school administrator (which is itself a natural consequence), especially if his parents also had a serious conversation with him about it all afterwards.
And if not? If he should have known better or didn’t show any remorse? Well, then I would think about engineering some logical consequences. I’m not exactly sure what those would be. Maybe he would lose privileges related to when and where he completes his schoolwork. It would depend on the specifics of the situation.
Yet the boy’s parents didn’t use logical consequences. Grounding a child — including not letting them attend prom — isn’t, to me, a consequence that stems directly from this mistake. It feels like an arbitrary punishment, which could backfire. Research suggests that arbitrary punishments can feel unfair to kids, making them feel upset and resentful. Kids who are punished in this way may turn their focus on themselves, rather than on the mistake they made and what they should learn from it.
We also need to consider that this boy’s punishment also directly impacted and harmed another student (his prom date). I’m not sure what the parents’ rationale was here, but it’s possible they felt that this was a feature, not a bug. Maybe they felt that doing this would make him feel even more awful and therefore would make the punishment more effective. But this, to me, would be worrisome. As parents, we should never strive to make our children feel terrible, because when they do, they often also feel shame. Inciting shame is the one big thing we want to avoid when we discipline our kids. It’s okay for our kids to feel a bit of guilt over their choice, but shame — shame is hugely counterproductive. Kids who feel ashamed are actually more likely, not less likely, to act out in the future, and they are at an increased risk for developing symptoms of depression and anxiety. (This is true even in kids as young as 3.)
This has been a long post, so let me sum up my thoughts. This boy made a mistake, and I understand his parents’ desire to ensure he learned from it. Forging signatures isn’t okay. But did his parents need to punish him so harshly to ensure that he learned this lesson? I don’t have all the info, so I’m not sure — but given what my friend wrote about him, I’m guessing not. Parents sometimes assume that the harsher the punishment, the more effective it will be, but research tells us otherwise. Discipline should always center around teaching — not making our kids feel awful.
What are your thoughts? Share in the comments!
And now for today’s Parenting Advice Hot Take!
Today I’m commenting on this Instagram post from Responsive_Parenting:
Here are my thoughts.