Today I found out my daughter played on her iPad instead of doing her homework after school. She said she forgot but I knew she hadn’t. She finally came clean and said it was just because homework is so boring. I don’t really want to punish her because I understand how she feels. What should i do?

Problems like this are the bane of a loving parent’s existence. We worry that if we make the wrong choice we’ll damage our child forever. 

If we fail to administer a punishment—and good on you for calling it what it is—we may set our child up to believe that she’s not subject to the same rules as everyone else. On the other hand, you want your child to understand that rules always exist to serve a larger—and well understood—purpose, and that they also need to be interpreted within the context in which they’re applied. To be too rigid in enforcing the rules, you could damage your child’s trust in you, which depends on her belief that you see, hear and value her as an individual.

I’ll to speak directly to your first question, though. “Does my daughter deserve punishment?” I guess I’d have to ask whether you consider punishment a teaching tool, or rather a sanction or penalty. In experimental psychology’s operant conditioning, “punishment” is defined as “…any change in a human or animal’s surroundings that occurs after a given behavior or response which reduces the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. As with reinforcement, it is the behavior, not the animal, that is punished.” See that? The behavior is punished, not the person. So no person can deserve punishment as a teaching tool.

On the other hand, if we look up the word “punishment” in a thesaurus, a long list of grisly words rolls out, including “sanction,” “penalty,” and tellingly, “suffering.” The thesaurus seems to reflect the most common interpretation of the word, not the one that psychologists, educators, doctors and parents prefer everyone think they are using.

Your question has drawn back the curtain. That’s one reason I like it so much.

So to restate: if punishment is used as a teaching tool, it is never something that the learner deserves. Punishment is a tool that the teacher (or parent-as-teacher) employs toward a desired end, in a way that is designed to reduce the behavior that preceded it, in the future. That’s all. It is meant to be administered dispassionately—not coldly or insensitively, though. And in a way that is sensitive to the real needs of the learner. This is why every single researcher in the civilized world, in every single field of study, who designs an experiment with human or animal subjects must submit their experiment for review before and approval by an ethics committee. Do you know how many ethics committees exist for this purpose, and how much potential research goes through them? In contrast, the “consequences,” “discipline,” and yes, “punishment” employed by parents are a lot more like the wild west. Even under the best of circumstances.

So you were right to ask the question. Obviously something about the situation didn’t sit right with you. You empathized with your daughter, who finds her homework tedious and un-fun, and was looking to feel happier after the rigors of her school day. Well, I feel for the both of you. And the problems with homework meeting the needs—or not—of today’s students are a topic for another post.

So how can you learn from this situation, work with your daughter and possibly adjust the circumstances to better meet all of her needs?

Restrictions do need to exist around use of electronics for children. You should use a combination of environmental modification and monitored expectation, a/k/a rules. Environmental modification might involve restricting access to screens, or possibly the internet, until after a certain hour, or until certain criteria are met.

The rules, themselves, ought to function more like signals. When they are broken, it’s a signal to you, the parent, that something is off and some communication between you and your child is needed. If a rule is broken regularly, perhaps the child isn’t ready for that level of autonomy, or perhaps you haven’t fully understood your child’s needs around the issue. This could be because you haven’t investigated all the aspects thoroughly, or it might indicate a communication problem between you and your child. 

The biggest problem with the old-school concept of a child deserving punishment (to suffer) as a consequence for rule breaking is that it undermines your child’s trust in you, without teaching them anything valuable. The suffering caused by parental punishment doesn’t teach the kind of lessons that help a person get ahead in our fast moving, connective, highly social culture. It teaches suspicion, damages healthy trust and it feeds the harboring of fear that must be kept hidden at any cost. It might be considered decent training for prison. I say that to be funny, because I don’t even think it would best accomplish that. 

When children suffer, as when any of us suffer, they have feelings of fear, sadness, helplessness, grief. The difference between children’s suffering and adults’ suffering is that children require significant emotional support with feelings like these. If they must endure these feelings without the emotional support of a parent—because they perceive their parent as wanting them to suffer, so they are not open to receiving emotional support even if offered—then they will not become adept at managing these feelings. They will be prone to anxiety, depression and all the physical, psychological, social, even cognitive and academic problems that go along with them.

So what to do about screens, homework and unsupervised time for grade-school-age children? You’ll need to come up with a solution that fits your situation exactly. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that every family develop a Media Use Plan, and they offer guidelines on their website. Include your daughter—the whole family should be involved—in the making of this plan. Point out the restrictions that are for her benefit and explain that they are not based on a desire to thwart her autonomy. She may not enjoy them, but you can help her to stay present with feelings she may have, such as frustration, anger, disappointment. By the time she is sixteen or so, and you allow her to exercise more autonomy regarding media choices, she will have developed the self-control to do so responsibly and safely. 

All children do need to relax after school. When I was growing up, I achieved this objective with a snack and 30-60 minutes in front of the TV. Today’s parents had computer and video-games as after school options. 

One of the most important things we can do as parents is to examine what our own habits were for that important time, and to decide whether they served us well. Honestly, I don’t think my hour of TV after school was beneficial at all. I was more checked out than truly relaxed. If they weren’t, we can support our children in developing healthier ones that truly excite them. Before the invention of the TV, children usually walked home from school or took a city bus, getting exercise, fresh air, social interaction and a sense of freedom. They played outside with friends. Maybe they read a book, or worked on a woodworking or sewing (both artistic) project they were interested in. Or played an instrument. Or used a chemistry set to almost blow up the basement, like my Uncle Greg did. 

True relaxation and release is less complete when we are interacting with a screen than when we are engaged in activities that involve more of our body and mind. It is vital to make time for both, and to make it fun. Support your children in pursuing healthy and exciting interests in the non-screen world. Let them see you doing activities that are nourishing to yourself away from screens. And remember to have several regular times every day that they can count on when you give them your full attention. With love…

Photo by Drew Rae from Pexels.

Published by Anne Lindyberg

Anne Lindyberg has a master's degree in school psychology and advanced training in Satir Transformational Systems. She is a former school psychologist, mother of two adult children, and loves living in the cornfields of southeast Iowa with her beautiful Toller-Dog, Lila and Sassy the cat.

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