To punish or not to punish?

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To punish or not to punish? This is a question all parents ask themselves. But it is essential to ask ourselves: to punish whom and for what? If you punish them for the infringement of a rule, it is necessary to have a clear idea about what the child has internalized of that rule and how his/her cognitive manner comprehends it. Piaget may help us with its systematic studies that allow us to see how develops respect for the rules.

Until the age of six-seven, the child respects the rules in a rigid manner. He does not ask him/herself whether a rule is right or wrong: whatever the adult says or does is right. Rules are understood literally. At this age, the child is not able to identify with the others, therefore he does not take into consideration the intention of those who performs the action. They considers themselves “obedient” to all the rules that govern life, but it does not mean that they have a proper understanding or sufficient justification to be consistent in putting them into practice.

Then, when they reach preadolescence, they begin to make their own rules, that is, to  internalize knowledge of the rules and their respect, which may not coincide with observing them.  The purpose of respecting rules is to understand and put them into practice in an autonomous manner.

To get to put them into practice, we must go through the stage of cooperation, of relations of mutual respect. The child becomes able to step into somebody’s else shoes and see actions from a perspective that is different from his/her own. This operation can take place roughly from 11-12 years onwards, when the child moves from the egocentric phase to the relational one. It is useful to help children understand the effects of their actions on the family, on the group, and doing so may facilitate the development of cooperation and respect.

For a proper punishment it is useful to know what does justice mean during childhood. The concept of justice grows gradually, along with solidarity between children. A child of six, defines as wrong whatever s/he is punished for and feels submissive to the rules s/he sees good in themselves. When they do something wrong, children think they repair their guilt through atoning punishment.

Between eight and twelve years, when cooperation develops, the idea of atoning punishment gives way to a punishment capable of re-establishing relational and social bonds. For the child, fair punishments are those relating to the offense, i.e. s/he thinks that the offender should suffer the same treatment the offended suffered. From an educational point of view, it is important to shift focus from atonement and punishment, and educate the child to reciprocity as a way to re-establish solidarity.

Around nine-ten years of age, children are extremely sensitive to the idea of equality. If you have broken my ball, you have to buy me the same ball. If you have to divide a pie into slices, they must be all the same. Between twelve and fourteen years of age, justice becomes a less rigid concept. They begin to take into account the circumstances and the situation of every single person.

What shall we keep in mind then, when children do something really bad? First of all, you need to know who is in front of you, what is their background and inner world. Remember that they have the same dignity and respectability of the adult who has to intervene. Do not react with greater severity than the one you would show towards the same action committed by an adult; moderate your reaction. Help the child understand the offense, stressing the effects his/her behavior has on the others. Pay attention, when judging, to the motivations behind an action and not only to the behavior of the child.

It is useful to talk often with your children, when you are at peace about what they consider to be correct and incorrect in family relationships and friendship. Try to have realistic expectations, be patient and observe the their concept of justice.

Taken from “Honor Thy Son and Thy Daughter”

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