I was at a children’s museum last week. In one section the children were busy collecting pretend rocks in little wheelbarrows, taking them and loading them into boxes that then went up on a pulley system, along some overhead conveyor belts, then were re-delivered to another part of the room where the children awaited eager to start the cycle again. The kids embraced this activity with a sort of serious, business-like enthusiasm. It was like watching busy ants at work.
My five-year old child waited eagerly for the opportunity to get a turn with a wheelbarrow. He then waited at the point where the next delivery of rocks was expected. They arrived in a shower and the children grabbed at them excitedly.
I noticed a smaller boy, probably about two years old, was crying and upset. His mother was attempting to remonstrate with him, to move him on, away from what had upset him. She seemed annoyed however, and the boy seemed to be chasing my own son. I asked her if there was a problem. “He,” she said, gesturing towards my child, “took his rocks”, gesturing towards her own child.
I knelt down next to my child. “Did you take some of that little boy’s rocks?” I asked, as gently as I could. I didn’t want him to feel accused or blamed. I was desperately trying to think of a better way to phrase the question, but couldn’t. He nodded.
“He’s very upset. Do you think you could give him them back?” My child looked at the other child, still crying while his mother tried to persuade him to come away. I felt a sense of urgency to fix this before his mother succeeded and the opportunity would be lost. He lifted a rock out of his wheelbarrow and looked at me.
“How many rocks do you think you took from him?” He held up two fingers. “Perhaps you could give him two back.” He quickly took a rock in each hand and ran over to the crying child, his arms outstretched. The little boy stopped crying immediately, took the rocks, and continued on his mission.
I refrained from saying “Well done” or “Good boy”, or in any way passing my own judgement or gushing forth with my approval, but later I casually commented to my child on how pleased the little boy had looked and how he had stopped crying.
It doesn’t always work out this well. Sometimes my child won’t take my cues, or appears unconcerned about the distress of the other child. This nearly always turns out to be when there’s another underlying issue, or some disconnection between us. It’s not always plain sailing. But the reason I reflected on this incident so much that night was not so much that I was pleased my child had done the right thing, but because he had admitted his wrong doing to me without hesitation, and this was not the first instance of this in the past few weeks.
Now if, I wonder, I was in the habit of punishing him, would he have come clean so readily? Maybe. But don’t kids who fear punishment tend to try to talk their way out of things?
If I had angrily accused him, and ordered him to “give back the rocks right now”, would he have done so so readily? Maybe. But would he have been more likely to learn anything from this? Would he have come out of the situation feeling he’d done the right thing, feeling good about himself? Or would he feel resentful, ashamed, determined not to get caught next time? Of course many parents would not just stop at ordering the rocks to be returned. There would have been further retribution to follow.
Ah, but would a child brought up by a parent who uses punishment have been less likely to take the rocks from another child in the first place? Again, I think not. Every child is subject to the same impulses and temptations, and lapses in self-control. In one of her many excellent articles about children and punishment, Dr Laura Markham writes,
“….most of us have the high-functioning frontal cortex that develops fully by about age 25, so we can rein in the anger, greed, and the other emotions that get us into trouble. But children don’t have a fully developed frontal cortex. It isn’t that they don’t know what’s right…..it’s that they can’t stop themselves from doing what’s wrong. That’s true even if there’s a consequence. If punishment worked, you would never have to do it again! Instead, kids who are punished actually behave WORSE over time than kids who aren’t punished.”
My unpunished child is not perfect. But I’m not going to punish him for that. And I’m confident that with gentle guidance, instead of punishment, he will be better able to learn all the lessons I wish to teach him, and will have no reason to conceal his mistakes from me, secure in his own inner self and in his relationship with me.