Chats in the Naughty Corner: witnessing punishment

I get told off every day. When someone hits me, I get told off.”

That’s hard. But just because someone else was involved as well doesn’t mean that you can’t choose to do the right thing.”

[….] “One time Dan was climbing on the railings in the playground, and I asked him whether we were allowed and he said yes. So I started climbing. Then Mrs T came over and told me off, because Dan got down before she got there. I was only four.”

This is a six yr old speaking. He’s bright, lively, friendly, eager to please. And he has a shortish attention span, he finds it hard to sit still, and he gets impatient with his friends when they are sharing. I saw him fuming, arms crossed, eyes glaring, on the ‘naughty chairs’ outside the head’s office, and I paused to say hello, and asked him how his day was going. I wanted to give him a chance to express some of his emotion before he got onto talking to the head, who is of the ‘Don’t you have that attitude when you come to talk to me’ school of thought. From a previous experience of being told off for talking to a child stood against the wall I was wary of being too supportive – as I’d said ‘do the right thing’ I was flinching inside at my use of the classic phrase.

I hadn’t expected to get such a clear story of the original injustice which serves as a memory to justify resentment of being punished unfairly without a chance for appeal. The story stayed with me. Because of the incident itself, but particularly because the lesson he has learned – that sometimes he will be blamed and punished when he is innocent, and to attempt to defend himself will make it worse. He is learning that there isn’t a strong link between his actions and when he is punished – pretty demotivating for trying to improve his behaviour. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that this boy is black, and it is unlikely that he will unlearn this lesson as he becomes a disproportionate victim of police harassment as a young man.

One might think everyone could agree that arbitrary punishment is always wrong and damaging, and would recognise that arbitrariness is perceived subjectively. However, in this school, although all would agree that punishment should be just, some then argue that children should respect adults’ decisions without question, trusting the adult to have understood the situation, even if the child disagrees. The child must learn to respect and obey authority, including recognising that it will not always seem fair to them. This is something I find intuitively problematic. There are many attempts to make punishment systems more fair, and to focus on the future impact of the response rather than punitive responses of retributive justice. There is also a strong case against any punishment.

David Wills entirely rejected the use of punishment in The Barns Hostel, a hostel for evacuees who were deemed too challenging to be housed with families during WW2. He argued that punishment undermined the possibility of children developing their own moral judgement and prevents the establishment of a relation in which the child feels themselves to be loved. He encountered the logic that if there was to be no punishment, an action could not be wrong – something children at the Barns Hostel gradually unlearnt. (David Gribble, Lifelines LibEd 2004). If children are living within the logic of bad actions being punished, then it is harder for them to develop self control in non-punitive situations. This clearly makes a difficult situation for non-authoritarian figures within schools, as the effectiveness of their methods is reduced by authoritarian actions elsewhere. This mutually un-beneficial relationship goes both ways, with children who are accustomed to being treated with understanding and given only flexible, negotiated rules being less willing to submit to authoritarian discipline. Schools are unnatural environments where discipline is necessary, and consistency is highly desirable for everyone and so a balance must be reached and agreed.


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