Punishment has no place in a peaceful society. The very concept of punishment is antithetical to peace. What is the “very concept of punishment”? Let’s start with the dictionary: my copy of The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines punishment as “retributive suffering, pain, or loss.” In other words, punishment is a painful or unpleasant experience imposed on one person by another, with the intention of making that person “pay” for something viewed as a wrong-doing. There is also a secondary intention of making the person suffer enough that they will not commit the same wrong-doing again, out of fear of receiving such punishment again. This intentional infliction of harm, either psychological or physical, is not a peaceful act. It does nothing to address the underlying causes of the individual’s actions, and it exists in a world of us vs. them. The person giving the punishment must separate themselves from the person receiving the punishment, seeing that person not as a whole human being with feelings and reasons for behaving a certain way, but only as a vehicle of wrong behavior. In a peaceful approach to wrong-doing, the person and the context of their behavior should be addressed as a whole. Conflict resolution techniques should be used to work towards creating a community where the person has no need to act in the undesired manner, or alternatively a community where the person’s behavior is in fact no longer viewed as a wrong-doing.
Punishment can only occur when the person meting out the punishment is in a position of authority or power over the person being punished. Although there will always be situations where one person has some form of authority over another, I maintain that punishment is in fact an “abusive or unjust exercise of power.” That definition in quotes is from thefreedictionary.com‘s definition of violence. Punishment is a form of violence in this sense (and sometimes in a more literal sense, such as corporal punishment).
In modern society there are two common condoned uses of punishment: of criminals and of children. I maintain that both uses are in opposition to peace. I have addressed the treatment of criminals in a few posts before (in Thoughts on restorative justice, and two posts on the death penalty), and I expect to write more on the subject at a later point. In this post, however, I wish to focus on the punishment of children.
Peace truly does begin with the children. Parents and teachers, as well as other adults in children’s lives, have the chance to raise children who will live at peace with themselves and others. Why would we want to ruin that with punishment? We cannot hope to create a peaceful society as long as we continue to treat the small human beings in our lives without the respect and care that we expect of them as adults. Raising children should not just be about teaching them to “behave.” Children are living, breathing, thinking, feeling human beings and they have the right to be treated as such. If we truly want to teach children how to function as members of society, we should give them the tools to use mediation and conflict resolution to solve problems, and to be in touch with their own needs and feelings. One of the most important ways we can do this as adults is to model the behavior we want our children to have. If we tell a child one thing (treat everyone with respect) but do another (punish them) they are more likely to learn from our action than our words. Punishing children only teaches them that the world is made up of us vs. them, that having power means harming others, and that there is no place for their own needs and feelings. If we instead engage in mediation and conflict resolution with the children in our lives, we will teach them how to solve problems peacefully while keeping in touch with their needs.
I was raised without punishment. My mother, Dr. Aletha Solter, is a developmental psychologist and parent educator. Her work is crucial in helping to create a world of peace instead of violence. For more information specifically about punishment, I recommend her articles Twenty Alternatives to Punishment, Why do Children “Misbehave”?, The Disadvantages of Time-Out, and Don’t spank your children.