Monday, 28 April 2014

Cruel to be Kind

If ever there was a concept misunderstood, it's "Being Cruel to be Kind". It's a valid concept but like everything else it all depends on the interpretation. For that reason, people either avoid talking about it, or go over the top on the cruelty.

If you've ever watched a dog with a litter of puppies you have seen it at its best. She doesn't tolerate any nonsense, and if they cross her lines of what is acceptable behaviour she nips them. This sudden shock makes them snap back into line, and in that way they learn. Is this cruel? Nipping a puppy on the face of it seems cruel, but they don't come to any harm. Social order is maintained. All is well.

This was the basis behind swatting children until we (collectively) decided this was too cruel, and in many places now any level of physical correction to children is frowned upon, and in some places it's an offence. I believe this came about because some people took it too far. The fact is, abusive people will still cross that line anyway, they just do it when nobody's looking. As it's very hard to agree upon how much of a swat is too much, it became easier to agree on a complete moritorium.

Creative parents can indeed raise a child successfully with zero physical punishment, but that doesn't mean zero punishment. There are many other methods employed, some more successful than others, and effectiveness is often based on the individual character of the child.

I've had my 2-and-a-half-year-old grandson here all week, and while he is mostly a good kid, he suffers from that disorder most young children suffer from - he "looks" with his fingers. Teaching him that he can't just touch everything he pleases is an ongoing thing, we are battling a natural and healthy curiosity. When we tell him not to touch certain things he frequently bursts into tears, and nobody enjoys making a child cry, but he must learn, so he must be told.

When my eldest was that age visitors used to marvel that I had really fragile decorative things within his reach that he never touched. Naturally I thought I was an absolutely brilliant parent that he was so good about this. When his sister came along, things were different. Visitors noticed these fragile decorative things had been moved up out of her reach. Nothing I did seemed to help dissuade her. I used the same methods I had used on my son. She was just that bit more determined.

With my younger daughter, visitors noticed I no longer owned any fragile decorative things. She'd broken them all.

From this experience I no longer blamed the parents of touchy-touchy children, because I was one. It was a lesson to me not to be so bloody judgemental.

It was also my first lesson in what they call "recidivism". It's used to describe those who have been convicted of a crime, sent to prison, released, and then committed a crime again. Children often do this. For example they get put in time-out from having punched their brother, and once they are back playing again, they punch him again. Just as prison doesn't work as a deterrant for so many adults, our creative punishments on children often don't work either. There was nothing I could do to persuade my daughter to leave the pretty things alone.

But it has now gone a step further. Now, not only is it frowned upon to smack the hand of a child reaching for something they shouldn't touch, there are those who frown if a voice is raised, the word "no" is used too often, or a child is not permitted to freely explore his world. In some circles anything short of letting them do whatever they please is looked upon as restricting their rights.

Somewhere between beating children and letting them run wild is a happy medium, but we are not good at happy mediums.

Of course, even if we were to beat our children, and whip our adult prisoners, there's no guarantee that they won't offend again. In fact the chances are very high that they will. Punishment works on some people, some of the time, but it isn't even close to a reliable method.

If you are curious about recidivism rates, Google can help you, there are lots of articles out there, but overall it is generally accepted that the majority of those who have served a jail sentence, that is to say over half, will commit another crime. In some groups/locations/situations it is much higher, and here's one article with some statistics.

I have long been an advocate for massive reform in how we deal with criminals. I do not believe in imprisoning people as a punishment.

The nanosecond that I say that everybody calls me a bleeding heart liberal and jumps to all manner of conclusions. But hear me out.

Imprisonment as a punishment generally does not work. Certainly, in some cases it does, but in most cases it doesn't. Those for whom it was a "short, sharp, shock" and who are too terrified of going back to prison to ever reoffend, would probably do just as well on an open-ended probation.

But in most cases the individual involved was lacking the executive skills to see the possible consequences of his crime, or he'd never have done it in the first place. In other words, we jail people for being compromised.

So, what does this imprisonment actually achieve? It gets them off the streets for a short time, but it does nothing to help them run their lives better afterwards. "Rehabilitation" usually runs from non-existent to minimal, and it's effectiveness is therefore patchy at best. We are told it's too costly to provide really effective rehabilitation, and when there are so many prisoners, it's hardly surprising.

If, instead of imprisoning people we spent that cost on other programs, we would get better results. And not just after the fact. It is well-known that better living conditions and better education keep people out of jail, so much can be done to prevent crime in the first place. But we are very attached to the idea of punishment. There is this deeply held belief in our society that a man must "do his time" for the crime committed. They can never tell you what the benefit actually is.

They are willing to spend vast sums of money on dealing with the results of crime, but none to prevent it. This is asbsurd.

So, we have a society that doesn't like it when children are restricted in any freedom, but is quite willing to lock up an adult who has misbehaved, and tell him it's for his own good. Can you see the disconnect here?
Why is it that discipline is a dirty word when they are young and ready to learn, but perfectly OK when it's much harder to teach them anything?

Saying "no" is not unkind. No matter how many times you have to repeat it, because you will. Children are recidivists, but that doesn't mean we give up at that point. It means we stand firm, and repeat ourselves so the lesson is learned before adulthood.

There are many ways we send the wrong messages to kids in efforts to be kind. Insisting on a child cleaning up after himself is not unkind. Having a set bedtime is not unkind. Refusing to make him a separate meal when he doesn't like what's for dinner is not unkind. Telling him he can't have the latest game/shoes/whatever is not unkind.

Love and kindness are not dependent on indulgence. Spending money on your kids does not help them grow as people. Spending time with them does. And teaching by example.

They depend on us for guidance. It doesn't come out of thin air. What we are supposed to be teaching them is the art of self-discipline. So that when they leave the nest, they can manage without supervision. So they already know what is right and wrong, and choose wisely. So they can't be led astray by others.

And if this fails, if parents are unable to turn the human being they made into a functional member of society, then somebody else has to. We will never achieve that by just locking them up and waiting.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, agree wholeheartedly! Moreover, there is the added concept of those who become dependent upon the institution to provide basic safety. It begs to question why we would want to keep so many incarcerated. When we think of social change, rarely is much thought given to lessening punishment/jailing individuals, and what we might do instead. Excellent look at the issue ~ Blessings!