Role of Punishment

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What is the role of punishment in inculcating discipline in children today? Well, to begin with, it is perhaps a good idea to spend some time pondering the differences in the meaning and implication of each of these terms. Although punishment and discipline are often used interchangeably, in reality they are two very different concepts. As Meera Marathe, a retired school teacher and now a guest faculty at IIIT, Hyderabad, puts it, “Discipline isn’t related to punishment except in the common social sense.” What they each hope to achieve is very different. Punishment is something that comes from an outside source and insists on obedience even as it stresses what a child should not do. Discipline, on the other hand, emphasises what a child should do, and is something that comes (or ought to come) from within the child. Discipline is, most importantly, an ongoing process whose ultimate goal is the complete development of the individual. Punishment, however, is usually a one-time occurrence and it has a short-term goal – that of inculcating obedience or compliance to rules. While discipline places the onus of learning and improving on the child, punishments are forced on the child. Having made this difference clear, it is a little disconcerting to find that most parents and educators use these two terms interchangeably. Not surprisingly, then, punishments are handed out with clockwork regularity at schools, and inexorably linked with the belief that these will lead to better discipline. The generic term ‘punishment’ covers a variety of controlling measures. Anna Kurian, mother of two, suggests that the purpose of punishments is, “to make a child remember that something she did was not acceptable to the powers that be! That it caused grief to x or y and hence is not to be repeated. To help along a child in to the socially acceptable conventions/morals of the world.” The most common punishments are therefore physical, where the power of control of the adult is what is clearly manifest. These might include a spank, a slap or being physically excluded from the rest of the class – like being made to stand on the bench or being sent out of the classroom. Then there are other, more subtle methods of showing a child that she has made a mistake. Excluding the child from a group activity, deliberately ignoring her, or the old one of ‘sending a child to Coventry’ are some other punishments that are frequently used. Denying the child the right to enjoy her favourite activities or stripping her of privileges are other ways to drive home the point. Why do parents and educators punish children? While Mrs C Susheela, a primary teacher at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Golconda 2, believes that, “unless punished at the right time the child cannot be disciplined,” Prof. Marathe’s perception of the issue is different. “The genuine or acceptable purpose can only be a desire for improvement or prevention of mistakes or unacceptable behaviour. But far too often a grown up forgets how strong he or she is while giving physical punishment,” he says. Sumana Sinha, a Kindergarten teacher at Blooming Buds School believes that, “The purpose of punishment is primarily to inculcate discipline, to make the child aware and appreciate his boundaries and respect authority.” The theory is that a physical manifestation of discipline – in the form of punishment – will help children realise that they have made a mistake. The timing and the nature of the punishment are the other factors that need to be taken into account. Punishing a child for not completing her work by denying her a treat a week later is not an effective punishment. It lacks a direct cause-effect relation to the mistake committed. And it is this lack that is the stumbling block for the child. Also, the time lag between the mistake committed and the punishment means that the child will forget why she is being punished. All of which result in ineffectual disciplining. So how does one ensure that a child is...
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