What’s Wrong With Punishing Children?


(image: spanking)

UCLA graduate student Laura Gillespie gave an intriguing talk on childhood punishment at this year’s Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress.  In it, she proposed a novel account that would justify the practice in at least some cases.  For those who were unable to attend her presentation, she has written a short piece for What’s Wrong? that introduces what she calls the Participant View of childhood punishment.  As always, comments are welcome.       

The Participant View: A Theory of Childhood Punishment

The practice of punishing children is a pervasive one, and one, too, about which many of us are deeply ambivalent. The public continues to debate the permissibility of an ever increasing list of once relatively uncontroversial methods of punishing children, and we—as parents and as former children ourselves—wrestle with questions about the moral status of particular punishments both executed and suffered. We worry over whether these punishments are unfair, ineffective, reactive, or unloving. This discourse might well profit by a clearer articulation of the aims of and permissibility conditions on punishment in this particular domain.

In the paper I presented at this year’s Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress, I offered the sketch of a distinctive theory of childhood punishment— a species of moral education theory that I call “the participant view.” The participant view is, I argue, uniquely suited to the task of properly characterizing and justifying (at least some instances of) the punishment of children by their caregivers. Some consistent practice of childhood punishment is in all likelihood, I argue, not only permissible for caregivers, but required of them, though none of the standard theories of punishment (including the standard moral education views) have the resources to explain why this should be.

I don’t take the conclusion that some practice of childhood punishment is required, or even permissible, to be obvious. I argue, in fact, that properly defending such a practice requires what may look to be a rather dramatic expansion of our initial sense of the practice and its aims. Without adopting this more expansive understanding of punishment’s tutelary aim, in conjunction with an expanded sense of what forms of treatment count as part of the practice to be justified, I am skeptical that justification is possible.

There are several puzzles about childhood punishment, in particular, that make it difficult to justify or even understand on any of any of the standard theories—even the standard moral education theories. It is quite unlike the punishment of adults by the state in that the default agent of punishment is characteristically partial, and the object of punishment characteristically immature. These features of the practice make it hard to understand on any view designed to justify the punishment of mature agents by the (impartial) state. And there is a further problem for moral education theories in particular—namely, that the connection between punishment (narrowly conceived) and moral education (narrowly conceived) looks dubious.

I can’t here lay out the participant view in its entirety, nor give a full account of my reasons for concluding that it, exclusively, has the power to satisfyingly resolve these puzzles. I will, though, briefly lay out what, according to the participant view, is included in that practice and how we should understand its aim.

On the participant view it is the overall scheme or pattern of punishing that requires a justification, where that pattern includes not only the initial imposition of a deprivation or burden, but also any subsequent signals or rituals of forgiveness and return. I also take a wider view of the forms of deprivation that count as punishing. I am particularly concerned to include subtler forms of treatment, often involving specifically psychic or emotional deprivations. I have in mind parental responses to bad behavior as subtle as aloofness. Of course, not every instance of aloofness will count as punishment, but then neither will every instance of hitting. For either kind of imposition to count as a punishment it must, first, constitute a response to bad behavior, and, second, involve the right kind of intention. I suggest that we understand the intention requirement in the following way:

For any burdensome or deprivatory response to bad behavior to count as punishment, it must be the case that among the imposer’s reasons for reacting in this way is that the reaction in question will constitute a burden or deprivation for its object.

I don’t argue that such a reason need be either conscious or decisive, but it must be among the considerations that, for her, counted in favor of that course of action. Adopting these criteria for what counts as punishment gives us a more principled way of sorting the cases than just appealing to some ad hoc list of the sorts of impositions popularly employed as punishments at any given moment. It also better picks out the range of cases that we should be concerned about. Parents do sometimes, for good or for ill, punish their children by various kinds of emotional withholding and reactive anger. It is these, indeed, about which we often harbor the most persistent worries, resentments and regrets. There is much more to say about what forms of treatment meet the criteria and which do not, but for now let us call punishment as distinguished by this criteria punishment broadly conceived. What we should aim to justify is, on the participant view, not individual impositions but the overall scheme of suspending and resuming normal relations in response to wrongdoing, where such suspensions constitute punishment broadly conceived.

The participant view also expands upon standard accounts of punishment’s educatory aims. It is a view on which punishment does and must teach more than a set of true or otherwise useful beliefs about what acts are forbidden and why. It develops a child’s understanding not only of what acts are wrong, but of how we should respond to wrongdoing when it occurs, and what responses we should be willing to tolerate from others. It is also a means of cultivating in children apt affective responses to wrongdoing and moral criticism—teaching them mastery in the deployment of the distinctively wrong-reactive attitudes and moral emotions. And, finally, it works to help develop the set of underlying capacities, sensitivities and habits of mind that allow for competent recognition of and responsiveness to wrongdoing and moral criticism in real time, despite the various forms of turbulence that interpersonal conflict will sometimes involve.

Punishment, in short, is a form of training aimed at developing the full range of capacities for good judgment and apt affective responses in one particular and particularly fraught domain of human life— that of wronging and being wronged. It does so, I suggest, primarily by the familiar tutelary methods of modeling and practice. In punishing, caregivers model and practice with children what it is to participate in this aspect of human life, and where punishment goes well, it trains children to participate decently, and to expect decent treatment from others, even in navigating the choppy waters of interpersonal conflict.

The key, I argue, to resolving most of the central puzzles about the nature and justification of childhood punishment is to show that it is an indispensable tool for the caregiver in meeting his basic responsibilities as such. I did not here lay out my reasons for thinking that other, more familiar accounts of the practice cannot deliver on this, but I am at least now in a position to gesture at why one might think that the participant view, in particular, does.

Interpersonal conflict and the wrong-reactive attitudes (disappointment, resentment, etc.) are a pervasive, inevitable, and important part of the life for which we, as caregivers, are tasked with preparing the children in our care. To prepare children for this aspect of life requires that they have ample opportunity to observe and participate in the relevant rituals of rupture and repair, and to experience being the object of (or at least the simulation of) those attitudes. If these two relatively modest claims are correct, then a picture should begin to emerge about why the practice of childhood punishment, broadly conceived, would be essential to serving that practice’s educatory aims, broadly conceived, and, too, why the imposition of some form of this practice would be not only permitted but required of the caregiver, tasked with equipping the children for whom he cares with the skills they need will to be full and able participants in mature human relationships.

3 responses to “What’s Wrong With Punishing Children?

  1. My wife and I are ivory-tower academics (I worked all my working life in a university; she mostly didn’t work outside the home, but herself attained a doctoral degree, and appreciated the academic life fully and from as it were the inside). And most of our friends were, pretty much, too. In our circles as well as our home, corporal punishment was just, simply, NOT DONE. I don’t think (with my 79-year old memory I could be not quite right here) that either of us ever literally struck either of our children. They did, I think, learn by example in our ultra-nonviolent home and among quite nonviolent friends and neighbors. Neither of them was ever involved in “fights” at school, etc., and both were generally well-behaved without being much, or at all, instructed by either of us.

    The only part of this that was, perhaps, “theoretical” was enough reading, and enough thinking about it, to assure both of us that “spare the rod and spoil the child” is the very reverse of the truth.

    Are we very odd and special? I at least hope not ….. But Laura Gillespie’s piece is no doubt aimed at a much broader range of circumstances, and I would hardly want to assert, with a pretension to certainty, that no one is ever justified in using any kind of physical coercion against children. I can only say that I’m sorry for those children who do grow up acclimated to regimes of corporal punishment, which I’m sure was both at least almost entirely unnecessary, and probably counterproductive.


  2. Reblogged this on A Philosopher's Take and commented:
    Thought provoking piece by UCLA grad student Laura Gillespie.


  3. Thanks, Jan! I think the cover art might be a little misleading– I don’t take myself to be defending corporal punishment. I actually tend to think that my view will prohibit corporal punishment, but it ends up depending on what the correct views are about how people ought to treat one another in general. If, though, as a matter of fact, it turns out that hitting people is never (or almost never) an appropriate way to expression resentment or anger, then it’s probably going to be the case that hitting your children is prohibited, too, on the grounds that it teaches them the wrong lesson– namely, that hitting is an appropriate expression of resentment or anger.

    I actually think that the kind of punishment practice that will turn out to be permissible on my view is something more like what it sounds like you guys were up to. One of the crucial pieces of participant view is that it expands the category of things that you might have thought of as punishment. If you buy my reasoning, then it will turn out that some of the moderate and thoughtful ways of responding to bad behavior in children that we tend to think of as ALTERNATIVES to punishment (e.g. time-out, certain expressions of disappointment) actually count as simply better/more defensible forms of punishing.


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