A case study on punishment: How it encourages “cheating”

Sign Up For Our FREE Daily eNews!

Last year I was talking with my son about the school year he just completed. We started talking about his teachers, and he mentioned a man who worked as a lunchroom aide. I think that what he told me about this man’s way of handling discipline in the lunchroom is a good case study on punishment, and how it encourages “cheating.”

I want to begin by reiterating the caption under the lunchroom picture below. I imagine that keeping a large group of children quiet is quite difficult. I also know from research that the typical school day is one that places demands on children that are unrealistic even for adults. Imagine yourself having to sit in various hard-chaired desks for up to 90 minutes at a time, listening attentively to a teacher the entire time, across 7-hour span. (I know you can do it, because you did when you were younger.)

No talking when others are talking. No joking around. Pay attention – don’t look out the window. Teacher may call on you at any moment, and test you on some fact that s/he just introduced, to see if you are engaged. Even for adults, the average attention span is about 10 minutes. After that, our brains just automatically go elsewhere. It’s happened to you, I know it. Think about the last meeting you were in, and how many times your eyes were on the speaker, but your mind was on the cheesecake you had at home, or your shopping list, or the fight you had with your friend last night.

Lunchtime is considered by most kids a time to let loose. I can talk! I can make jokes! I can socialize! I don’t have to learn!

Up walks Mr. Smith (not his real name). My son’s lunchroom table is talking and laughing, enjoying the reprieve from the lesson in compliance that the typical school day is designed to teach. Now, Mr. Smith doesn’t like loud noises.

“Quiet.” [children look, and then resume their conversation]

“Quiet.” [no response]

“Ok. Silent lunch for your table.”

I don’t envy the job of lunchroom aide, that’s for sure!

Silent lunch means that you cannot talk or make any noise for the rest of the lunch period. Violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law! (with detention)

Invariably, someone will whisper a joke to someone, or ask to go to the bathroom, and Mr. Smith will hammer down. Make a lesson of anyone who dares to disrespect his rule of law.

What this case study on punishment teaches

In my article on punishment, this would be called “negative punishment,” or “punishment by removal.” The children are being punished for being too loud, and the method of punishment is to remove their freedom. This is a good case study on punishment for several reasons.

  1. Mr. Smith doesn’t provide any information about what the children can do. Instead, the message is “Don’t be loud.” You can argue that what they should do is “be quiet.” However, this expectation ignores the purpose of the loud behavior; namely, to vent, let off steam, act out their bottled up energy from hours of sitting and complying.  In your parenting, if your child is consistently exhibiting a behavior, in spite of your punishments, it may be time to think more intentionally about why your child needs this behavior. As Dr. Phil used to ask his guests, “How’s that workin for ya?” If your child is willing to act in a way that is clearly displeasing to you, even though he may be punished for it, the answer to that question is, “Just fine.” When you can identify the need, you can provide alternative ways for your child to satisfy that need, so that everyone is happy.
  2. Punishment alone, without love or communication, doesn’t work in the long term. When my son told me this story about Mr. Smith, I told him that many studies would predict that the students wouldn’t learn to be quiet. Instead, they would learn to be quiet when Mr. Smith was nearby. When Mr. Smith approaches, the children try to quiet down. When he walks away, the noise gradually escalates. This is what I mean by “cheating.” Children who are punished, with no ability to receive anything positive, do not learn character traits or life lessons. They only learn to comply in the presence of the punishing agent. The students’ main goal is to avoid being punished. Therefore, as soon as they can go back to being loud and potentially unruly, they resume their behavior. Now, this may be perfectly fine from Mr. Smith’s perspective. His goal isn’t necessarily to teach children a long-term lesson. He may just want his time at work to be quieter. In your parenting, your discipline should be attempting to teach your child a lesson about how to act. It isn’t enough if your child acts politely when you’re watching, but is rude and unmannerly when you are out of earshot. You are trying to teach your child to be a polite and respectful person.  If your child is “cheating,” it may be an opportunity for you to teach them the reasons for your rule, and to brainstorm ideas for acting differently that will bring them praise and rewards.
  3. Punishment alone breeds resentment. My son tells me that the students make fun of Mr. Smith constantly. They make jokes about his weight, his voice, the way he walks, and the way he dresses. Clearly, Mr. Smith wants the students to respect his authority. They may respect his authority, but they do not respect him. In your parenting, a positive relationship with your child is essential. When your child respects your rules as fair, and delivered out of love and a desire to make them good, successful people, your delivery of consequences will be met with less resistance. If your child truly believes, based on your actual parenting behavior, that the alternative behaviors that you suggest will lead to positive outcomes, your child will be motivated to choose those alternatives when they are faced with a similar situation.What  you can doWhen I speak of “intentional” parenting, or “parenting on purpose,” I think that this case study on punishment is a good one to keep in the back of your mind. If your child is exhibiting a behavior you need to punish, remember the following:
  • Deliver the punishment with love. – As I have argued in my article about being kind to your children, children learn the skills they need to navigate the adult world much better when the relationships they have with their parents are respectful, consistent, and loving. There are many studies that suggest that harsh punishment leads to resentment, which leads to “cheating.”
  • Have a conversation about the behavior. Try to figure out what purpose it serves. Try to figure out another acceptable behavior that will serve the same purpose. You want to deliver the punishment with information about what behavior you would like to see in the future.
  • Reward that replacement behavior the first time you see it, and frequently thereafter. I believe that you should attempt to reward behaviors that you like at a ratio of five times the number of punishments you deliver. Children want to please you, but need to know through your actions how to do so.

Discipline and punishment with children is necessary. However, the goal of punishment is not merely to mete it out. The bigger goal of punishment is to teach your child how you want them to act. Punishment alone only teaches your child what you don’t want him to do, which doesn’t accomplish the goal that you’ve set out for your child’s development in the first place! Since your child doesn’t know how to meet her needs (because you haven’t taught her strategies for meeting them in a way that is socially acceptable), she is likely to continue acting the same way, and thinking up more and more clever ways to get away with it. If it’s a need, your child must meet it. If you don’t give her methods for doing so that are acceptable, the behavior isn’t going anywhere, except in hiding.

Happy parenting! I look forward to your comments and questions.

⇒Catch up on all the Ask Dr. John archives here.

Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a full-time husband and father of two sons. His articles appear in Psychology Today, and you can hear Dr. John every other Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on the Matt Connarton Unleashed radio show on WMNH 95.3 FM. Also, check out  drjohnrich.com for more info. Got questions? Dr. John will help you navigate. Reach him directly at info@drjohnrich.com.

About this Author