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This post is a quote of what Dr Moshe Feldenkrais wrote about the effects of punishing and threatening a child. It is from his book “The Potent Self”, Chapter 7, “Reward and Punishment”.

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If a child burns himself he cries and learns not to touch fire again. He may need more than one such lesson, but these rarely cause any lasting emotional behavioral disorders, painful though they may be. The same punishment inflicted deliberately by an adult may be sufficient to distort the entire process of adjustment and leave an indelible mark on the mind of the child. While a child may fall and break a leg, he will be jumping and running again before long. But if beaten by his father to the same point of grievous bodily injury, the entire social adjustment of the child may be distorted. The mechanistic punishment of the physical world, such as burn that follows touching fire, is regular, consistent, and immediate. One can adjust oneself and learn to avoid it. The child soon learns to associate the punishment with his own act; test it, appreciate it, and avoid it, or accept a bearable measure of it. Such punishment does not disturb the balance of mind and has rarely any lasting effects.

The anxiety is so great that he can compel himself to kiss the punishing hand if the parent insists on this.

However, punishment from the hand of an adult is rarely so immediate and so consistent that the child can readily associate the punishment with his own action and establish a casual link between them. Moreover, simultaneously with the punishment his security is compromised, so that not only does he feel the physical pain but he also feels left alone. The anxiety is so great that he can compel himself to kiss the punishing hand if the parent insists on this. The loss of security is a greater anguish than the pain of punishment. The compromise of security distorts the lever with which the adjustment to reality is made, because it makes the dependence relationship frightening, and therefore destroys the ability to learn.

Punishment that undermines security is unhealthy. The dependence relationship becomes overstrained, and the means of education are destroyed. The child is forced to rely on his own means to assure his security, at a stage when those means are practically nil. The result cannot be anything but detrimental to future adjustment.

A threat is essentially a means to control through fear, not a positive constructive tool. A threat almost always achieves its aim — but unfortunately it often does much more than that.

However, the punishment that is at the bottom of most future trouble is the most innocent in appearance: the threat of punishment is more effective than actual punishment, provided it can be maintained; that is, provided that the threat remains active. Herein lies, in effect, both the advantage of such threats and the seed of possible disorders. The adult finds it easier to impress the vivid imagination of the youngster than to organize himself to corrective action. The efficacy of threatened punishment is that the child is unable to test the truth of the threat or to ascertain its real effects. Such threats are as effective with the immature adult as they are with the child. A threat is essentially a means to control through fear, not a positive constructive tool. A threat almost always achieves its aim — but unfortunately it often does much more than that.

In mechanistic real punishment, the child can appreciate the degree of inconvenience and decide to accept the pain or displeasure if the gratification bought with it is worth it. A promised punishment that cannot be tested creates the inner conflict of indecision. The drive for action is not impeded directly, the dreaded punishment is not real, and the child is constantly impelled to test it and find out for himself how far he can really go.

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