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"Dr. Laura....How do you hold a child accountable for her behavior without punishment?"

"I recently read a quote from a Finnish education minister: "There's no word for accountability in Finnish...Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted." - Teacher Tom

What does it mean, to hold our child accountable for her behavior?  My definition would be that our child assumes responsibility for her actions, including making amends and avoiding a repeat, whether the authority figure is present or notSo, really, it isn't about "holding our child accountable."  What we want is for our child to step into responsibility, to hold HERSELF accountable.  Once someone takes responsibility, we don't have to "hold her accountable."

Essentially, we're talking about raising a moral child who wants to do the right thing.  Most people assume that punishment is what helps humans decide to do the right thing, so if we aren't punishing our children, they'll grow up doing the wrong thing.  That's a bleak view of human nature.  And it turns out to be dead wrong.

There's now a wealth of research (see the end of this article for link to citations) demonstrating that kids who are punished are LESS likely to make positive moral choices.  That's because:

  • Punishment focuses a child on the "consequences" he is suffering, rather than on the consequences of his behavior to someone else.
  • Punishment makes a child feel like he's a bad person, which is always a self-fulfilling prophecy, so he's more likely to repeat the bad behavior.
  • The most salient lesson of punishment is to avoid it in the future by sneaking and lying to escape detection, so punishment fosters dishonesty. 
  • Because kids invariably consider punishment unfair, it teaches kids that might makes right and abuse of power is ok -- which makes kids less likely to make moral choices.
  • Punishment--yes, even timeouts--erode our relationship with our child, so that he isn't as invested in pleasing us.  And the more disconnected he feels from us, the worse his behavior. Punishment increases defiance.
  • Because punishment doesn't help a child with the emotions that drove her to act out to begin with, those emotions just get stuffed down, only to pop up again later and cause a repeat of the misbehavior.
  • Punishment makes a child feel wronged, and creates a "chip on the shoulder" so she's likely to resent making amends. 
  • Punishment makes kids look out only for themselves and blame others, rather than caring about how their behavior affects others.
  • Punishment creates an external locus of control -- the authority figure. The child actually comes to see the parent as responsible for making her behave, rather than taking responsibility for her behavior as her own choice.

One study showed that seventh graders whose parents raised them using punishment, including consequences and timeouts, were less morally developed than their peers. "Having learned to do exactly what they're told in order to avoid losing their parents' love, they tended to just apply rules in a rigid, one-size-fits-all fashion," says Alfie Kohn. 

Many of the studies referred to above are detailed in Kohn's book, Unconditional Parenting, and more are being published every day. You'll also find a long list of citations (as well as tips to get kids cooperating without punishment) in my post  10 Steps To Guide Children Without Punishment.

Not surprisingly, these studies also show that children who are punished (yes, including with time outs and consequences) exhibit MORE bad behavior, not less. Not because kids who behave badly are punished more often, but because kids who are punished behave badly more often.

So if punishment teaches our child all the wrong lessons, what DOES raise a child who wants to do the right thing?  Loving guidance. Which includes limits, set with empathy.  Connection.  Modeling.  And a whole lot of love. We'll get into the details in the next post, with:  How to Raise a Moral, Responsible Child -- without Punishment.

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Teacher Tom commented on 07-Mar-2012 07:57 PM
Yes! I'm so glad you wrote this. Responsibility is something one ASSUMES; it's not something you are given. And I love your definition of accountability. I've been trying to get my head completely around that Finnish ed minister's quote for awhile now.
Thanks for getting me the rest of the way there!
Laura Markham commented on 08-Mar-2012 08:06 AM
Tom- And thanks for that quote from the Finnish Ed minister. I was bothered by the premise of "holding our child accountable" in my reader's question, but it was your quote that made me think it through and realize I needed to address it!
Alex | Perfecting Dad commented on 08-Mar-2012 06:51 PM
Great points about what accountability is, and that the child should strive to hold themselves accountable. It is a very tough thing to do and not something that can be forced ... in that way you are right about punishment. It seems that some people view
punishment as a way to transmit a wrong back to the child so they feel it. This is right, the child must have a concept that their wrong is a wrong, but you are also very right that forcefully and artificially punishing will often backfire as the intelligent
child simply sees through it and tries to devise methods for dealing with punishment instead of self-reflecting the behaviour. That said, things are only really "bad" if they cause an injury, even to someone else. Therefore, the child should experience some
form of negativity. There must be "ammends" the child believes should be made. The trick is to teach the child enough empathy that they understand fully who was wronged and how, as well as the impulse to correct. Modelling is key. Waiting to read the follow
up (or maybe it's there now :)

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