Pin It

Last Thursday EdWeek's Bridging Differences blog by Deborah Meier posted the first of what it says will be a month of guest blogging by Alfie Kohn. Wikipedia describes Kohn as an "author and lecturer who has explored a number of topics in education, parenting, and human behavior. ... [H]e calls into questions [such practices] as the use of competition, incentive programs, conventional discipline, standardized testing, grades, homework, and traditional schooling." In this first post at EdWeek, Kohn writes a critique of punishment:

By definition, to punish is to deliberately make someone suffer, either because a primitive version of justice seems to demand it (If you do something bad, then something bad must be done to you.) or because it's assumed that punishment will teach you a lesson. The premise here is that when we make you unhappy by forcing you to do something you find aversive, or by preventing you from doing something you enjoy, you'll become a better person.

What punishments—even if they're euphemistically called "consequences" (so we can feel better about making a child feel bad)—really do is make the child angry, teach him that you get your way in life by using your power over those who are weaker, and make it less likely that he'll focus on how his actions affect others. Punishment undermines moral development by leading people to ask, "What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don't do it" and actively discouraging them from asking, "What kind of person do I want to be?" (I've laid out these arguments in more detail in my books Unconditional Parenting and Beyond Discipline, and I've just posted the relevant section of the former book on-line at for those who are interested.)

It's crucial to question not only the effectiveness of punishment—in fact, it can never buy us anything more than temporary compliance, and it does that at a disturbing cost—but the beliefs that often underlie it: that kids are basically bad and will do terrible things without the threat of punishment hanging over them, that punishment is the best (or even only) way to socialize children, that the only alternative to punishment is permissiveness, that it's an appropriate way to express love and care, and so on. As you know, many kids, too, have internalized some of these myths, which may be even sadder than encountering them in adults.

If you follow the link above to Kohn's book, you can see that he's cited some of the research that backs up his argument. Kohn's view is consistent with the perspective of restorative practices, which seeks to develop good habits in students not only when someone is watching, but more importantly when no one is looking. That means that children (and also adults) have to find their own intrinsic motivation and take responsibility for their own behavioral choices.

Read more of Kohn's post at Alfie Kohn: Why Punishment Doesn't Work - Bridging Differences - Education Week.