The Punishment of Children
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Title: The Punishment of Children
Author: Felix Adler
Release Date: August 14, 2018 [eBook #57689]
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AMERICAN HOME SERIES
NORMAN E. RICHARDSON, Editor
The Punishment of Children
THE ABINGDON PRESS
NEW YORK CINCINNATI
The material contained in this pamphlet was originally delivered inthree addresses before the Ethical Culture Society of New York City.Special permission has been given to have it reprinted in this form.
The ethical nurture of the child is a distinct responsibility which noparent can neglect with impunity. When ignorant of the more elementaryprinciples of punishment, parents easily fall into one of two seriouserrors. The use of harsh and severely arbitrary methods causes thechild's fine ethical sensibilities to become dull. Through indifferenceor careless neglect, the child becomes willful, erratic, orself-indulgent. In this study Dr. Adler, with remarkable skill, guidesthe parent between these two extremes. He shows that it is possible tobe consistent without being harsh, gentle without being vacillating.
The mastery of the art of punishment is also one of the most directmeans of ethical self-culture. It is to be hoped that a careful study ofthis subject may result in a refinement of the attitude of parentstoward each other, as well as toward their children.
Norman E. Richardson.
Printed in the United States of America
First Edition Printed April, 1920
Reprinted July, 1920; March, 1922
THE PUNISHMENT OF CHILDREN
It is man's moral duty to act as the physician of his enemies and seekto cure them of their wrongdoing. How much more, then, should thisattitude be taken toward those whom we love—toward our children, if wefind their characters marred by serious faults?
In discussing the subject of punishment I do not for a moment think ofcovering the innumerable problems which it suggests. Many books havebeen written on this subject; prolonged study and the experience of alifetime are barely sufficient for a mastery of its details. I shallcontent myself with suggesting a few simple rules and principles, andshall consider my object gained if I induce my hearers to enter upon acloser investigation of the delicate and manifold questions involved.
1. Never Administer Punishment in Anger
The first general rule to which I would refer is, never administerpunishment in anger. A saying of Socrates deserves to be carefullyborne in mind. Turning one day upon his insolent servant, Speucippus,who had subjected him to great annoyance, he exclaimed, "I should beatyou now, sirrah, were I not so angry with you." The practice of most menis the very opposite; they beat and punish because they are angry.
But it is clear that we cannot trust ourselves to correct another whilewe are enraged. The intensity of our anger is proportional to the degreeof annoyance which we have experienced, but it happens quite frequentlythat a great annoyance may be caused by a slight fault, just as,conversely,[Pg 4] the greatest fault may cause us only slight annoyance, ormay even contribute to our pleasure. We should administer seriouspunishment where the fault is serious, and slight punishment where thefault is slight. But, as I have just said, a slight fault may sometimescause serious annoyance, just as a slight spark thrown into a powdermagazine may cause a destructive explosion. And we do often resemble apowder magazine, being filled with suppressed inflammable irritations,so that a trivial naughtiness on the part of a child may cause a mostabsurd display of temper.
But is it the child's fault that we are in this irascible condition? Toshow how a slight fault may sometimes cause a most serious annoyance,let me remind you of the story of Vedius Pollio, the Roman. He was oneday entertaining the Emperor Augustus at dinner. During the banquet aslave who was carrying one of the crystal goblets by which his masterset great store, in his nervousness suffered the goblet to fall from hishand so that it broke into a thousand pieces on the floor. Pollio was soinfuriated that he ordered the slave to be bound and thrown into aneighboring fishpond, to be devoured by the lampreys. The Emperorinterfered to save the slave's life, but Pollio was too much enraged todefer even to the Emperor's wish. Thereupon Augustus ordered that everycrystal goblet in the house should be broken in his presence, that theslave should be set free, and that the obnoxious fishpond should beclosed.
The breaking of a goblet or vase is a good instance of how a slightfault, a mere inadvertency, may cause serious damage and great chagrin.In the same way an unseasonable word, loud conversation, a bit ofpardonable mischief, which we should overlook under ordinarycircumstances, may throw us into a fury when we are out of sorts. Whenwe have urgent business and are kept waiting, we are apt, unless we keepa curb on our tempers, to[Pg 5] break forth into violent complaints, whichindeed are quite proportional to the amount of annoyance we experience,but not necessarily to the fault of the person who occasions it.
Our business is to cure faults, and in order to accomplish this end thepunishment should be meted out in due proportion to the fault. Insteadof following this principle, the great majority of men when they punishare not like reasonable beings, selecting right means toward a true end,but like hot springs which boil over because they cannot containthemselves.
We ought never to punish in anger. No one can trust himself when in thatstate; an angry man is always liable to overshoot the mark; we must waituntil our angry feeling has had time to cool.
Do I then advise that we administer punishment in cold blood? No, weought to correct the faults of others with a certain moral warmthexpressed in our words and manner, a warmth which is produced by ourreprehension of the fault, not by the annoyance which it causes us.This, then, is the first rule: Never punish in anger.
2. Distinguish Between the Child and the Fault
The second rule is that in correcting a child we should be careful todistinguish between the child and its fault; we should not allow theshadow of the fault to darken the whole nature of the child. We shouldtreat the fault as something accidental which can be removed. Vulgarpersons, when a child has told a falsehood, say, "You liar." Theyidentify the child with the fault of lying, and thereby imply that thisvice is ingrained in its nature. They do not say or imply, "You havetold a falsehood, but you will surely not do so again; hereafter youwill tell the truth"; they say, "You are a liar"; which is equivalent tosaying, "Lying has become part and parcel of your nature." In the sameway[Pg 6] when a child has proved itself incapable of mastering a certaintask, the thoughtless parent or teacher may exclaim, impatiently, "Youare a dunce"; that is to say, "You are a hopeless case; nothing butstupidity is to be expected of you." All opprobrious epithets of thissort are to be most scrupulously avoided. Even to the worst offender oneshould say: "You have acted thus in one case, perhaps in many cases, butyou can act otherwise; the evil has not eaten into the core of yournature. There is still a sound part in you; there is good at the bottomof your soul, and if you will only assert your better nature, you can dowell." We are bound to show confidence in the transgressor. Ourconfidence may be disappointed a hundred times, but it must never bewholly destroyed, for it is the crutch on which the weak lean in theirfeeble efforts to walk.
Now, such language as "You are a dunce," "You are a liar," is, to besure, used only by the vulgar; but many parents who would not use suchwords imply as much by their attitude toward their child; they indicateby their manner, "Well, nothing good is to be expected of you." Thisattitude of the parents is born of selfishness; the child hasdisappointed their expectations, and the disappointment, instead ofmaking them more tender toward the child, makes them impatient. But thisis not the attitude of the physician whose business it is to cure evil.We must give the child to understand that we still have hope of hisamendment; the slightest improvement should be welcomed with anexpression of satisfaction.
We should never attach absolute blame to a child, never overwhelm itwith a general condemnation. And in like manner we should never giveabsolute praise, never injure a child by unlimited approbation. Thewords, "excellent," "perfect," which are sometimes used in schoolreports, are inexcusable. I have seen the object of education thwartedin the case of particularly promising pupils by such[Pg 7] unqualifiedadmiration. No human being is ethically perfect, and to tell a childthat he is perfect is to encourage a superficial way of looking uponlife and to pamper his conceit.
The right attitude is to say or to imply by our manner, "You have donewell thus far; go on as you have begun and try hereafter to do stillbetter." Such words as these fall like sunshine into the soul, warmingand fructifying every good seed.
On the other hand, to tell a child that he is perfect may induce him torelax his effort, for having reached the summit he does not feel theneed of further exertion. We should correct faults in such a way as toimply that not everything is lost. And we should praise merit in such away as to imply that not everything is yet achieved; that, on thecontrary, the goal is still far, far in the distance.
Everything, as I have said, depends upon the attitude of the parent orinstructor. Those who possess educational tact—a very rare and preciousquality—adopt the right attitude by a sort of instinct. But those whodo not possess it naturally can acquire it, at least to a certaindegree, by reflecting upon the underlying principles of punishment.
3. Do Not Lecture Children
The third rule is, Do not lecture children. One feels tempted to sayto some parents: "You do not succeed as well as you might in thetraining of your children because you talk too much. The less you saythe more effective will your discipline be. Let your measures speak foryou."
When punishment is necessary let it come upon the child like the actionof a natural law—calm, unswerving, inevitable. Do not attempt to givereasons or to argue with the child concerning the punishment you areabout to inflict. If the child is in danger of thinking your punishmentunjust, it may be expedient to explain the reasons of your[Pg 8] action, butdo so after the punishment has been inflicted.
There are parents who are perpetually scolding their children. The factthat they scold so much is proof of their educational helplessness. Theydo