The Dolphin Divide

Sounding the Depths of Our Common Consciousness

Is the Pain of Punishment Too Much to Bear?

Why bolder is better when it's time to get tough

You’ve asked nicely. You’ve explained patiently. You’ve shared your experience and enumerated your reasons. You thought you were making progress. You hoped you were getting through. And yet, to your complete and utter dismay, your carefully considered boundaries have not only been crossed, they’ve been crushed as if by an Abrams tank. Again. By the apple of your eye, by the love of your life. By your own child.

How is it, you secretly wonder, that your own progeny could be so obviously without even an ounce of the common sense you yourself possess in abundance? And what makes your son (or daughter) do the things he (or she) does? Genetic mutation? Mind-control by aliens?

Whatever the case, you’ve about reached the end of your rope.

You control your temper. You take a deep breath. And for the first time in a great long while, you consider your option of last resort – punishment.

So, what’s it to be?

Loss of TV privileges? A week without texting? A month without X-Box? Grounding?

Most of us are used to choosing between the lesser of two evils, but when it comes to punishment, it turns out that the greater the short-term pain (within reason, of course, and definitely not physical), the greater the long-term gain is likely to be. That’s because punishment is categorically different from reward. Rewards work best when the payoffs rise according to the difficulty of the task.

Think dolphin training for a moment.

A fast swim for a stadium audience is worth maybe a couple of fish. It’s not that difficult, after all, to do what you’re biologically designed to do. But when the dolphin leaps twenty feet into the air with spinning twirls, then back-flips into the tank, that effort might be worth a bucketful of snacks.

We humans respond similarly to the prospect of reward. Ask us to do our jobs – same old same – we ask only for our usual paycheck in return. But up the ante and ask us to put in overtime or take on an extra project? Well then, there better be a bonus in our short-term future.

Punishment, though, works in reverse. Starting big allows for tapering later, and that’s a good thing for everyone involved since no one – neither punisher nor punished – wants to remain very long in an adversarial situation.

Think baby approaching hot stove.

Do you mutter a mild warning from across the room? Of course not. Without even thinking, you shout a loud, attention-getting “NO!” Even though the aim of our punishing loud voice is to promote safety and not fear, our emphatic response startles the baby into a disruption of its dangerous behavior.

Over time, a “No-no, baby, remember that’s hot” will do just as well. Through associative learning, the infant comes to recognize any phrase containing “no” as what behaviorists call a pre-aversive stimulus – the willing heeding of which will short-circuit the path to more overt forms of the punishing phrase.

When it comes to promoting long-term household harmony by means of short-term punishment, it’s important to remember what psychologists have long known – that perceptions of reward and punishment are often highly individualized notions existing along a continuum of possibilities.

An awareness of your child’s behavioral preferences (TV, texting, X-Box, etc.) can help determine the best course of action in deciding on an appropriate punishment. In the opening salvos of the punishment game, it’s best to pick a punishment your child is most likely to remember later and not want to have repeated. In the moment, such decisions are often painful for both parent and child alike. But in the long-haul, it will allow for a tapering off of punishing events rather than the far less desirable ramping up of them.

As long as care and consistency are applied in maintaining necessary boundaries, overt forms of punishment won’t have to remain in play for long. Your child will come to recognize your warnings for what they are – loving but serious reminders that control of situational outcomes remains largely in their own hands, and in their own behavioral choices. And isn’t that a large part of what growing up is all about?

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2013

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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