Discipline or Punish?

Nandini Nayar

What is the role of punishment in inculcating discipline in children today? Well, to begin with, it is perhaps a good idea to spend some time pondering the differences in the meaning and implication of each of these terms. Although punishment and discipline are often used interchangeably, in reality they are two very different concepts. As Meera Marathe, a retired school teacher and now a guest faculty at IIIT, Hyderabad, puts it, “Discipline isn’t related to punishment except in the common social sense.” What they each hope to achieve is very different.

Punishment is something that comes from an outside source and insists on obedience even as it stresses what a child should not do. Discipline, on the other hand, emphasises what a child should do, and is something that comes (or ought to come) from within the child. Discipline is, most importantly, an ongoing process whose ultimate goal is the complete development of the individual. Punishment, however, is usually a one-time occurrence and it has a short-term goal – that of inculcating obedience or compliance to rules. While discipline places the onus of learning and improving on the child, punishments are forced on the child.

Having made this difference clear, it is a little disconcerting to find that most parents and educators use these two terms interchangeably. Not surprisingly, then, punishments are handed out with clockwork regularity at schools, and inexorably linked with the belief that these will lead to better discipline.

The generic term ‘punishment’ covers a variety of controlling measures. Anna Kurian, mother of two, suggests that the purpose of punishments is, “to make a child remember that something she did was not acceptable to the powers that be! That it caused grief to x or y and hence is not to be repeated. To help along a child in to the socially acceptable conventions/morals of the world.” The most common punishments are therefore physical, where the power of control of the adult is what is clearly manifest. These might include a spank, a slap or being physically excluded from the rest of the class – like being made to stand on the bench or being sent out of the classroom. Then there are other, more subtle methods of showing a child that she has made a mistake. Excluding the child from a group activity, deliberately ignoring her, or the old one of ‘sending a child to Coventry’ are some other punishments that are frequently used. Denying the child the right to enjoy her favourite activities or stripping her of privileges are other ways to drive home the point.

Why do parents and educators punish children? While Mrs C Susheela, a primary teacher at Kendriya Vidyalaya, Golconda 2, believes that, “unless punished at the right time the child cannot be disciplined,” Prof. Marathe’s perception of the issue is different. “The genuine or acceptable purpose can only be a desire for improvement or prevention of mistakes or unacceptable behaviour. But far too often a grown up forgets how strong he or she is while giving physical punishment,” he says. Sumana Sinha, a Kindergarten teacher at Blooming Buds School believes that, “The purpose of punishment is primarily to inculcate discipline, to make the child aware and appreciate his boundaries and respect authority.”

The theory is that a physical manifestation of discipline – in the form of punishment – will help children realise that they have made a mistake. The timing and the nature of the punishment are the other factors that need to be taken into account. Punishing a child for not completing her work by denying her a treat a week later is not an effective punishment. It lacks a direct cause-effect relation to the mistake committed. And it is this lack that is the stumbling block for the child. Also, the time lag between the mistake committed and the punishment means that the child will forget why she is being punished. All of which result in ineffectual disciplining.

So how does one ensure that a child is disciplined in an effective manner? Anna Kurian believes that, “For a punishment to be effective it needs to be tailored to fit the offence and offender both AND it needs to be preceded/succeeded by an explanation.” This simply means that parents and educators need to take a look at the mistake, and think over the implications on the development of the child before pronouncing a punishment. This also means that punishments cannot be, in Kurian’s words, “One size fits all, at all times.”

So what are the criteria that educators and parents need to keep in mind when punishing a child? “When we give the punishment we have to keep in mind the background of the child and also the nature of the child. For a sensitive child just scolding is sufficient. Whereas for a very mischievous child, other methods can be used. The same punishment cannot be given to an eight year old and to a fourteen year old. The fourteen year old should not be given punishment in front of the class because his self-esteem will take a beating.” This is what Radhika Chandika, mother of one and a teacher with the NIE, The Hindu, believes. The age, often the gender of the child being punished, the background that she carries with her – these are the factors that teachers need to keep in mind while handing out punishments.

On the other hand, Sumana Sinha opines, “I keep in mind the fact that my punishment should not do any physical harm to the child but should be more in the line of a lesson to his soul which he will retain for life. Punishment is such a weapon, if handled indiscriminately can not only do physical damage to a child, but make him a rebel for life. I don’t feel there is any need to punish boys and girls differently, for both are children with the same qualities.”

In view of the recent spate of ‘excessive’ punishments that have been reported in the media, where children have been physically and mentally tortured by teachers, this is perhaps a safe attitude towards punishment. Teachers often get carried away and in their zeal to discipline the child, hand out punishments that can cause permanent harm to the child. For people who advocate a punishment- free disciplining, the obvious option is to abolish punishments in schools. However, this option comes with its own share of clauses and problems. The problems are related to parents, who believe that school is the appropriate and the only place where the child can be taught discipline. Most teachers will confess that very often it is the parents who ask for disciplinary measures to keep their child in check. Teachers, principals and the very authority that school stands for are common means of threatening the child. It is hardly surprising, then, that discipline and the punishments that are given to instill it are associated with schools.

For really effective disciplining, however, it is absolutely imperative that educators and parents work together. The foundations of effective discipline must be laid at home. Once this has been accomplished, then teachers and the school will have no problems in building on the basic framework.

But to expect that the school alone instill discipline in a child whose upbringing till that point has been devoid of any order is asking too much of the institution and placing too large an expectation on the teachers. After all, parents need to be realistic and accept the fact that while they are only responsible for one, possibly two children, teachers are expected to discipline thirty, often forty children. Discipline, therefore, can be effective only when it is in collaboration with the school.

Parents often find themselves disagreeing with the disciplinary actions adopted by the school, resulting in annoyance, anger and often a public outcry. To guard against this, parents can take the precaution of examining the values that a school promotes, seeking information from teachers, and even other parents, about the institution where they hope to admit their child. Schools should be chosen on the basis of the values that the parents consider vital for the development of their child. For instance, if parents believe that the competitive spirit is something that their child can live without, then it does not make sense to choose a school that actively promotes the performance of their students in exams and competitions.

Punishments and discipline share an uneasy relationship, but a little thought on the part of both parents and educators can ensure that they are effectively used to mould a child into a complete and organised individual, who can find his own place in the world. Discipline can be inculcated without resorting to punishments, if parents/educators make an effort to explain things to the child. Disciplining is easier when the child comes to recognise the rationale behind a suggested act. The act then becomes a routine, systematised part of life – and we have discipline! Establishing a cause-effect relationship before either disciplining or punishing will ensure that the child is aware of the implications of her actions. Punishments work effectively only if the people in authority examine the nature of the offence, expend some thought over the appropriate punitive measure before delivering judgment. It must be thought-out rather than impulsive and must possess long-term efficacy rather than short-term results.

Disciplining, when cast in a frank, logical dialogue with the child, will rarely require repetition because the child understands rather than ‘feels’. Punishment is often about ‘feeling’ (the parents’ anger or the child’s bewildered hurt or resentment). This can be avoided if the justification for the punishment is laid out for the child.

Finally, parents and educators need to accept that there are no tailor-made punishments and that various factors (from the personality of the child to the context of misbehaviour to the expectations of parents) need to be taken into account before delivering judgment on the erring child.

The author is a freelance writer based in Hyderabad. She can be reached at nandsnayar@yahoo.co.in.

Discipline in the classroom often conjures up images of children sitting in straight rows heads bent in silent concentration as they read/write in their books. Inherent in this image is the idea of order. As teachers we understand the need for order in a situation where we are working with a group of children. A chaotic classroom may be distressing for both the teacher and the children. Some children may become withdrawn and fearful in a classroom situation they perceive as dominated by some of their peers. Class and gender stereotypes may get reified in such situations. In contrast, a teacher dominated classroom may present a picture of order, but at the same time overtly or covertly uphold the same societal stereotypes! The problem then becomes one of imagining and subsequently, bringing about an order that is enabling and equitable at the same time. As teachers we need to be first aware that our own voices will dominate in the classroom – something that has been found to be true in a wide variety of classrooms in many different places. Second, we need to deliberately provide as far as possible, equal opportunities for all children to talk. This needs thought and planning so that we may accommodate the many ways in which children may wish to express themselves. It certainly calls upon the teacher to create a classroom climate in which all children feel safe to talk and confident that they will be heard. Thus, we arrive at a notion of order, or discipline if you like, that is not necessarily confining or restraining, but enabling and flexible. This sense of discipline/order is perhaps best captured by the notion of a ‘raaga’ in music – an order that is discernible and at the same time open enough to allow interpretation and creativity.

Indira Vijaysimha, Indira Vijaysimha runs the Poorna Learning Centre, Bangalore. She can be reached at indira502@hotmail.com.

Whether one needs to use punishment to teach discipline depends upon how one defines discipline and punishment. If by discipline one means obedience then perhaps punishment is necessary as the consequences may not suffice to effect correction. However, if by discipline one means the ability to complete a job well within a specified time then generally what the teacher needs to do is to draw attention to the factors that prevent one from completing the task and to the consequences of the failure to do so. Such interactions, over a period of time, usually suffice to make a child disciplined. Punishment tends to make the child resentful and focuses the child’s attention upon the punishment – usually perceived as unfair – rather than the correction intended. Punishment should be rarely and sparingly used. Consequences for unacceptable behaviour should be clearly stated and if that does not deter the child, attention should be drawn to the difference between consequences and punishment as children often tend to confuse the two.

Gurveen Kaur, Gurveen Kaur runs the Centre for Learning in Hyderabad. She can be reached at kaur.gurveen@gmail.com.

There is no easy, guaranteed alternative to reward and punishment when it comes to ‘disciplining’ students. Let’s face it, if there was an easier way that gave results, we would all use it! But ask yourself what you really want – behaviour control, or discipline that comes from within? I prefer the latter, so I approach it through relationship and dialogue with students. In my experience, young people can understand the reasons for rules (provided the rules are reasonable!), and when you share an affectionate and trusting relationship, they will often cooperate even if they don’t fully understand. Two-way dialogue, where the teacher listens as well, is essential to work through the difficulties and differences that are bound to come up. This is not meant to yield quick results, but it is a longer process of helping children become truly mature.

Kamala Mukunda, Kamala Mukunda teaches at the Centre for Learning, Bangalore. She can be reached at kamala.mukunda@gmail.com.

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