Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When punishment becomes familiar

If you have kids, or remember what it was like to be a kid, you might find the following cycle familiar:

  1. Do something wrong.
  2. Get caught doing something wrong.
  3. Get punished: time in the corner, grounded, spanked, for some, beaten.
  4. Notice that your parents aren't around unless you do something wrong.
  5. Repeat.
  6. Escalate the punishment with every repeat of steps 1-4.
  7. As an adult, wonder what the hell happened in therapy.

Kids love attention from their parents. They need attention because by design, they are not entirely capable of taking care of themselves. As they grow older, they learn from us what life is about. They see everything adults do, especially the parents, as survival strategies. So they want to do what we do.

But if we don't give our kids enough attention, then they discover, often by accident, that the way to get attention is to get into trouble. Often, neither the parents nor the kids see this happening, for the mind cannot see outside of the problems it creates. Unless they get outside help, they may never see what is happening or understand why.

I've come to understand that if I respond to an honest mistake, an honest question, an innocent trespass by my daughter, with punishment, that will become familiar. She will think that is normal behavior. She won't understand why she is being treated that way, but she will accept it as normal and try to adapt. This is a survival strategy. She relies upon us.

So when she does something that I think is "wrong", I have to ask myself the question, "What is wrong here? What is the appropriate response?"

I don't respond with punishment. I respond with a gentle "no" and pull her away from where she was. I don't want to establish control over her. I just want to give her choices so that she can make an objective assessment of her choices without worrying about me. It is not my job to be the lesson. The lesson speaks for itself. My job is to show the way to live in peace with kindness and respect.

When parents yell at their kids, when they spank them, when they beat them (I know, I know, as a culture, I shouldn't have to include this, but there are still some people who beat their kids), that's attention. Everything we do for our kids is attention our kids are craving. Even if it is bad attention, our kids will adapt and assume it's normal.

Every form of attention has a positive feedback loop. If you punish your kids repeatedly, expect to dole out more punishments. Expect the punishments to escalate because all the kid will see is attention. The punishment becomes better than the neglect, so the kid figures how to get more by doing more irritating stuff.

Conversely, treat the kid with respect, honor and as a little human being, and you can create an opposite feedback loop. Praise the kid when they do something good, give her a high-five, and she will reciprocate. Teach the kid to read and praise the kid, and she will learn to read. If the kid makes a mistake, gently review the mistake with her and show her how to do it right until she learns or shows you a better way to do it. Kids can do that, you know? They can show you a better way to do things than before.

Either way, what you do for your kid will become familiar to him or her. She will seek out what you do in others because that is familiar. If you punish her, neglect her, or berate her, she will seek that out in a mate. If you treat her with respect, give her choices that mean something to her, and reward her for progress, she will seek that out in a mate.

If you want to bark at your kids to be quiet, when they are adults they will find mates that do the same thing. If you want your kid to obey your every command, they will do it and find a mate or even friends that command them. But if you want to have kids that think objectively about everything and everyone they meet, you may want to consider a change in course.

Trust me, it works. It's familiar. Humans crave familiarity. They crave it through school, work or to prison. They want to know that their life is predictable, reliable and safe. Yes, for some adults even prison can seem to be safer than the outside world.

So take your pick. You can choose negative reinforcement of the behaviors you desire to see in your child or positive reinforcement. Just remember that whatever you do will become familiar, a way of life for your child. This is what I think about every day that I'm with my kid.
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