Thursday, October 13, 2011

Punishment and Praise at the Playground

The other day at the playground, I heard it happen again.  It came out in that pseudo-gentle, condescending tone with an understated, forced calm.

Courtesy Flickr
It was the threat of a "time-out".

Ineffective, invalidating, meaningless time-out.

"Uh-oh. Does someone need a time-out? Come over here and sit," the boy's mother said.

Little Tommy had cried because he wanted the ball in my son's hand. Tommy lay on the ground, quite upset. At his mother's prompt for a time-out, Tommy obediently moved over 3 feet from where he was crying, presumably into time-out position. His whining and complaining didn't stop, despite his mother's instructions to settle down. He repeatedly tried to move back towards me and Munchkin.

I offered my own words of validation for Tommy: "You want the ball, but Munchkin is having a turn right now. It's really hard to wait, isn't it? When he's done, you can have a turn." (incidentally, Tommy ended up waiting about 5 minutes, after which Munchkin happily gave him the ball).

I said nothing more, but I did have two immediate thoughts:
1) Tommy is two and a half. He's crying because he wants something he can't have at this moment.  Crying seems like a pretty natural and age-appropriate thing to do in the situation.
2) What behavior was he supposed to exhibit to in order prevent the time-out?

But I get it. His mother wants to teach him to interact nicely with other children, so she punished him for...what, exactly? For acting his age? For behaving in a "normal" but socially unacceptable way (for adults, that is)? For being sad?  Maybe his mom really just wanted him to withdraw from the situation, to find entertainment in something else. Maybe what she meant is that he should be patient while waiting for his turn. I wondered how Tommy interpreted the time-out.

About a half hour later, I heard something else that struck me just as hard. It came out in that mellifluous, exaggerated cheerleader voice, with an overstated, hyper-excited positive tone. 

It was praise.

Empty, blanketed, unattached praise.

"Good digging, Tommy!" the boy's mother exclaimed.

I watched silently and had two immediate thoughts:
1) He's two and a half. He's in a sandbox and has a shovel. Digging seems like a pretty natural thing to do in that situation.
2) What would "bad" digging look like? Is there a way for a toddler to dig in the sand that's incorrect or morally reprehensible?

 But I get it. His mom wanted to praise him for...what, exactly? For acting his age? For behaving in a "normal" and socially acceptable way? For having fun? Maybe she really just wanted to connect with him. Maybe what she meant was that she was happy to see him enjoying himself in the sand, not throwing it. I wondered how Tommy interpreted her remark.

Now, I can't read minds and I don't even know Tommy and his mother. But I'm pretty sure that without reading any research about the harm of both praise and punishment Tommy is already making his own conclusions about how he is treated. I imagine it's something like: Mommy isn't nice to me when I cry, but she's nice when I'm happy.

Or maybe he's reasoned: If I express my unhappiness about coveting another child's toy, then I make my mom uncomfortable. Instead, I should ask politely and then patiently wait my turn...or I'll end up in a time-out. If I'm having fun and not causing any trouble, then I make myself and my mommy happy... then she compliments me and I feel even better.

Sound crazy? Far-fetched? Too judgmental? Perhaps.

Like I said, I can't read minds. But I can wonder about the child's perspective.  And I do, I always wonder...

What are your thoughts? How do you think children perceive praise and punishment? Do their perceptions matter as much as parental control?


  1. I think that moms are in a lose/lose situation. They can't offer discipline without getting grief, and if they let their kids do whatever they please they get grief too. Time outs are not cruel. Nor is praise. What is cruel is to try and discern the possible thoughts that child might have in regards to his mother only doing her best. And as a person who has spent extensive time researching early childhood development, Tommy did not analyze the situation and have either of those highly developed thoughts. He forgot what happened after he got his toy and moved on.

  2. @Kat, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I value input from readers, including those with dissenting opinions.

    I am saddened to hear you find discipline a grief-filled, "lose-lose" endeavor. I can see how you might feel that way: society puts a lot of pressure on moms to make their kids "behave", even though it's not usually in the best interests of the child or mother. I suppose that 's why I've embraced the paradigm shift of unconditional parenting. It has changed my views on parenting and made mothering so much better! I don't feel grief, I feel hope and closeness, even when my son is "acting out". I invite you to read some of my other posts or become a follower here or on FB to learn more.

    Time outs and praise aren't necessarily "cruel", but they certainly have their problems, mostly related to development of self-esteem. Either one can be used effectively and with unconditional love, or they may be used to control and manipulate. Here are a couple of links about the harm of praise & punishment written by people who have also done extensive research on child development:

    I am also fully aware that a 2.5YO doesn't have the cognitive ability to "analyze the situation and have either of those highly developed thoughts." I wrote that paragraph ("Or maybe he's reasoned that...") as a tongue-in-cheek expression of how ridiculous it is to expect a child that age to reason that way. The fact that he CANNOT analyze with sophistication is precisely what makes the use of punishment and praise in those 2 situations all the more absurd. However, I do think a toddler is capable of remembering an event that happened 5 minutes ago. He is also capable of basic logic (me nice, mom nice; me cry, mom mad). I have deep reverence for the toddler mental and emotional states. My hope was that this post would encourage others to consider the child's perspective more seriously.