If you’re running short on time – or don’t read entire blog posts – here’s the “spark notes”:
Grace is stronger than shame.
Punishment doesn’t work. I’ve wrestled with this thought for years and sometimes I still believe the lie that punishment is a good idea.
This phrase in my title “God agrees” could really be revised to say, “Punishment doesn’t work; I finally agree with God.”
I worked in public schools for 20 years; 12 of those years I was an administrator. When teachers brought students to my office, they often didn’t want me to bring them back to class because they wanted them to suffer long and hard for their behavior. The lesser punishments hadn’t worked; let’s try bigger ones!
I’m a mom of two and a step-mom of three; we have 13 grandchildren. Good behavior is a joy! And I’m not unfamiliar with inappropriate – and even really bad – behavior.
Punishment alters behavior for the moment, sometimes. If it works for long, it’s because of fear. Compliance because of fear is part of the definition of slavery.
Compliance is not behavior that is the fruit of maturity; there’s that part of “free will” being involved that matters a great deal.
I really don’t need to look any further than my own behavior to take note that punishment doesn’t work. My own behavior can be selfish, controlling, argumentative, and pitifully weak.
In 54 years I’ve been yelled at, cussed at, a regular camper in time out, the loser of privileges, grounded, the recipient of the silent treatment, and on the receiving end of many versions of shame and blame. I’ve handed out all of these punishments at one time or another, too.
None of these punishments changed my behavior – or others’ – for any real length of time. At least not for the better.
I never saw any lasting evidence in school administration or parenting that punishment was a strategy worth perfecting. Our growing prison population is interesting to consider in this conversation.
Punishment by slander, shame, and public embarrassment doesn’t seem to be moving our political process in a good direction.
There are really only three reasons we make mistakes or inappropriate choices about our behavior:
- Ignorance – We just don’t know better. We need to be taught; we need new information and often times, redirection.
- Weakness / Immaturity – We’re learning how, but we can’t do it by ourself.
- Sin nature – We know how and we can do it by ourselves, but we do what is wrong anyway – or we don’t do what we know is right.
None of these conditions can be changed by punishment.
Punishment doesn’t change ignorance, but it can make it difficult to learn if it brings fear and destroys trust in a relationship.
Punishment doesn’t help weakness or immaturity; it makes it worse.
The struggle of learning something new – and the added shame of punishment for not getting it right – physically produces cortisol which shuts down brain function, making it impossible think clearly and grow stronger. (See the references to Dr. Leaf’s work on the GOOD STUFF page.)
Fear of punishment encourages hiding and mistrust; both work against the process of maturing.
Punishment doesn’t change our sin nature; if it did, the cross of Christ is a waste. I love the way Oswald Chambers explains this idea, in My Utmost for His Highest:
“God nowhere holds a person responsible for having the heredity of sin, and does not condemn anyone because of it. Condemnation comes when I realize that Jesus Christ came to deliver me from this heredity of sin, and yet I refuse to let Him do so.”
Sin nature cannot be resolved. Sin nature cannot be transformed. Sin nature does not improve with behavior management. Sin nature cannot be punished enough to change.
My only hope for changing my sin nature is Jesus, not punishment. The same is true for our children.
So now what? If not punishment, what will work? Thank you for asking. And yes, there is room for direction and correction (discipline); these responses just can’t get confused with punishment.
Remember the “spark notes”: Grace is stronger than shame. Give it a try; it’s a gamble worth going for!
And please share your questions and considerations; others can learn from your stories, too. Thank you.