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Not too many years ago, I knew a little boy who was prone to temper tantrums that included yelling, kicking, and hitting. He wasn’t entirely to blame for this, having had a rough start in life. Nevertheless, that sort of behavior couldn’t just be excused, and, of course, if uncorrected it would surely cause problems for him and those around him as he grew older.

But what to do about it? That was the puzzle. When I was a little boy his age, the answer would have been obvious: punishment. Yell at, kick, or hit others, and you faced a range of punishments—anything from a spanking, to sitting in a corner, to being forbidden to go out to play, to the old standby of soap in the mouth (which, having seen A Christmas Story, I can never again think about in quite the same way). While staying overnight at his home once, I was treated to the sight of a full-blown tantrum in the living room. It was late, and after he calmed down, he was sent to get ready for bed. Hoping to make him feel a little better, I said to him as he left the room, “I’ll see you in the morning.” He looked at me very solemnly. “No, you won’t,” he said. “Why not?” That solemn look again. “I’ll have consequences.”

This became my invitation to think—for the first time, really—about a practice of child-rearing (between infancy and puberty) that up until then I had met only as a theory in Rousseau’s Emile. The aim, put simply, is one with which we could hardly disagree. We want children to develop the capacity to live with others, controlling their behavior not because they are compelled to do so but because they take responsibility for themselves and their actions. If, instead, we simply control what they do, punishing them when they misbehave, they learn to approach life as a battle between contesting wills. To lose that battle is to have one’s will thwarted. Rousseau wants to structure the child’s life in such a way that he does not engage the world as that kind of contest.

What is the right way to produce a child who will be patient and calm (though resigned) when he has not gotten what he wants? And what can we do to achieve it? Rousseau provides Emile with a tutor and a tightly controlled (and artificial) setting in which he is reared. The tutor does not tell Emile what to do; rather, he structures and manipulates the circumstances of Emile’s life in such a way that he learns from the consequences of his actions. Punishment has no place in this approach to child-rearing. The tutor describes succinctly his recommended approach: “Do not give your pupil any kind of verbal lessons; he ought to receive them only from experience. Inflict no kind of punishment on him.” What the pupil learns from experience is that actions have natural consequences. No one inflicts those consequences on him; they simply result from the way the world is structured. This is quite different from a contest of wills. The pupil bows not to another person but to the implacable force of nature. Like the little boy I knew, he simply “has consequences.”

“There are two sorts of dependence,” Emile’s ­tutor says, “dependence on things, which is from ­nature; dependence on men, which is from society. . . . Keep the child in dependence on things.” Indeed, “punishment as punishment must never be inflicted on children, but it should always happen to them as a natural consequence of their bad action.” The ambiguity of that sentence points to something worth our reflection. Punishment should not be inflicted. But “it” (punishment?) should come as a natural consequence. Whether inflicted by someone’s will or occurring as consequence, punishment seems to be what the child experiences. Evidently the tutor thinks the experience will be very different for the child if no other person actually inflicts the punishment.

I admit to finding this all rather confusing. I learned that one does not have to look very far online to discover bloggers advising parents struggling with child-rearing to turn to consequences rather than punishment. Sometimes this advice follows rather precisely Rousseau’s emphasis on natural consequences. There are, after all, consequences that flow quite naturally and predictably from our choices and behavior. If I’m angry at being told to stay in my room, and I climb out the window, I may find myself locked out of the house. If my parents pack my lunch but I forget to take it to school, I may go hungry. If I leave my baseball glove lying out in the yard before it rains, I may be without a glove at my team’s next game. This is just the way the world works. No one is deliberately punishing me by locking me out of the house. No one at school is punishing me when I have to go hungry while my friends eat lunch. No hostile will is intent on seeing to it that I can’t play in the game. These are not punishments; they are just natural consequences of my behavior.

But we might also use the language of consequences in some rather different cases—when the consequence is not just a natural result of the way the world works but, instead, is imposed by someone who exercises authority over us. So, if I crawl out the window and can’t get back into the house when I am supposed to be there, my parents may say that, as a consequence, I must stay inside all weekend. If I forget the lunch that was packed for me, my parents may say that, as a consequence, I will lose my week’s allowance so I learn that food is costly. If I leave my glove out in the rain, I may, as a consequence, have to stay home and cut the lawn. We can call these “consequences” if we like, but I suspect they will feel pretty much like punishments—perhaps deserved punishments, but punishments nonetheless. It’s hard to see much difference when the consequence is imposed. To be sure, some sympathy for beleaguered parents is in order here. Probably they are trying to avoid anything—like corporal punishment or the soap option—that may seem to express anger or hostility on their part. But while sympathizing with them, we may wonder whether the child who is compelled to stay in all weekend will not feel that he has been on the receiving end of a little hostility.

In any case, I have trouble making much sense out of some examples given by well-meaning bloggers trying to help sincerely frustrated parents. Consider the following example:

(A) A young child doesn’t put away his toys when told to do so. His parents spank him.

(B) A young child doesn’t put away his toys when told to do so. His parents take away the toys for the next day.

The first, we’re told, is punishment; the second is consequence. I’m betting the child feels in both instances that he is bowing not to some relentless force of nature but to the will of an adult with authority (and, of course, power) over him. To be sure, I can see a difference between the two cases. In the first instance, the punishment (spanking) has no natural relation to the offense (leaving toys strewn around the room). In the second instance, we might see a somewhat closer connection between the offense and the consequence, although the consequence is surely imposed rather than natural.

Here’s a second example given by the same concerned adviser:

(A) A young child talks back to his mother. She washes his mouth out with soap. (And again, I can hear Ralphie saying, “It was . . . soap poisoning.”)

(B) A young child talks back to his mother. She assigns him some extra chores to complete the next day.

Here again we are told that the first is punishment, the second consequence. And here again I cannot imagine that the child’s experience is significantly different. Interestingly, and confusingly, this time it’s the first case in which the punishment might be thought to be apposite to the offense, whereas in the second case, the consequence is so clearly unrelated to the offense that it is hard to imagine any natural connection between them.

What should we conclude from these examples? Perhaps that there is more confusion than clarity at work here. Unless the consequence really arises very naturally from the behavior, it is unlikely to look or feel like anything other than punishment, no matter what we tell the child.

Consider another way of distinguishing the cases. Notice that what are called consequences are somewhat less immediate than punishments. Talk back to your mother and you get the soap treatment—right now. Talk back to your mother and you get some extra chores to complete—tomorrow. It may also be the case that consequences tend to linger, whereas punishment comes immediately and then is over. Leave the toys lying around and you get spanked—boom, it’s over, and we’re back to the status quo ante. Leave the toys lying around and you can’t play with them tomorrow—a kind of lingering sorrow that hovers over the child as he falls asleep. Which of these is likely to work better? I’m not sure. Which of these is likely to help the child develop an inner desire to behave properly? Again, I’m not sure. Which is likely to be experienced by the child as more oppressive (no matter how soothing the tone of voice in which the “consequence” is announced)? I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that question.

The reason for preferring consequences to punishments is supposed to be that the former respects the child’s right, for better or worse, to make a decision—thereby taking responsibility for and control of his own behavior. This makes some sense, but it seems far more likely to be true of natural than of imposed consequences. And most of the time, the consequences suffered by a misbehaving child seem more like a discipline imposed by well-meaning but frustrated parents than like something that just naturally results as a consequence of the child’s behavior. Understandably, therefore, one blogger slips into describing both punishments and consequences as “types of discipline . . . used to manage your kids’ behaviors.”

That word “manage” ought to capture our attention. The fictional tutor Rousseau’s imagination provides for Emile is a master of manipulation. Emile must learn through circumstances that are constantly contrived by the tutor, but he must never realize that he is being controlled or manipulated. Thus, his thinking and understanding are shaped, even though he is never told what he should do. Are we quite sure that we want to think of our parental role as a matter of manipulation? Is there not something a little puzzling, if not downright inconsistent, about trying to help a child develop the capacity for free and independent action by means of a technique so manipulative? By contrast, the beauty of punishment, if I may dare to put it that way, is that it seeks to control only behavior, not thought. Yell and hit, and you sit in the corner for ten minutes. I don’t tell you to like it. I don’t tell you to agree with me. In short, I don’t tell you what to think—but only how you must behave. That seems a more honest way of respecting the child’s freedom and independence. Perhaps it will not work as well for achieving the desired behavioral goal; I don’t know for sure. But I’d be tempted to try it.

There is a theological version of this problem, and it also tends to incline me away from the notion of consequence. Start, though, by reflecting again upon advice from one of the well-meaning bloggers:

Maybe your daughter doesn’t do her assigned chores. What do you want her to learn and practice? A natural consequence may be that you do not feel the goodwill to take her shopping. Instead, she is assigned extra jobs to help you out around the house. From this she learns that when she doesn’t do her part, others may not have the time or interest to go out of their way for her.

Grant for the moment that this is a “natural” consequence of her behavior. Suppose she says, sincerely, that she is sorry and will try to do better. Can you forgive her and take her shopping? Not if there is a natural consequence to her action—a consequence that is not imposed by your contrary will but is simply a result of the way the world works. Wrongdoing may be forgiven and a punishment withdrawn in the face of genuine penitence. A natural consequence cannot. In which sort of world do we prefer to live? In which sort would we prefer to be a child?

And, to come to the theological point, how do we want the heavenly Father to treat us? In one of his letters about prayer to a fictitious correspondent named Malcolm, C. S. Lewis considers a suggestion that, we are to suppose, Malcolm has made. Malcolm has been bothered by talk about God’s wrath, as if we sinners were coming into the presence of “a justly angered sovereign, lover, father, master, or teacher.” Malcolm’s idea is that rather than thinking of God as punishing us for our wrongdoing, we should say that “what is traditionally regarded as our experience of God’s anger would be more helpfully regarded as what inevitably happens to us if we behave inappropriately towards a reality of immense power.” And Malcolm suggests an analogy: “The live wire doesn’t feel angry with us, but if we blunder against it we get a shock.”

In short, Malcolm prefers the notion of consequence to that of punishment when thinking about (with a nod to Jonathan Edwards) “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” We can understand the point, and, indeed, we may find it rather appealing. But remember that the language of consequences is (by design) entirely impersonal, relentless, and implacable. Not so the language of punishment, and Lewis’s reply notes precisely that. “My dear Malcolm, what do you suppose you have gained by substituting the image of a live wire for that of angered majesty? You have shut us all up in despair; for the angry can forgive, but electricity can’t.” We might easily be attracted to Malcolm’s approach, for it seems to make God less forbidding and (we might suppose) more loving. But, in fact, when we replace personal images with impersonal ones, we lose something very important. “Wrath and pardon are both, as applied to God, analogies; but they belong together to the same circle of analogy—the circle of life, and love, and deeply personal relationships.”

Certainly, I have no magic formula for dealing with disobedient and unruly children, and certainly in a world where some children’s behavior has been malformed almost from the very start, we should not underplay the difficulties and frustrations parents face. But surely we also want to place the bond between parents and children within that circle of deeply personal relationships. There a child can say, “I’m sorry,” and be forgiven—looking in love to his father or mother, rather than to unforgiving nature, in the face of which he can only say, “I’ll have consequences.”

Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University.

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