Punishment does not work!

Spanking      Recollections       NoSpank       NeverHit    
Timeout       Shame     Hurt1     Punishment    Coercion   
Tantrum       Hurt2               TitforTat     Rewards   
Malama        Discouragement      Pavlov        Chekhov   Doggies
Alternatives: Nonviolent Communication          Could it be         Twenty    

Dog Troubles

A story by Duen Hsi Yen

Many years ago, I arrived home one winter recess from college, and found that my sister had during my absence, gotten both a cat and a dog. My sister said that someone at work, had given her the dog. The dog, actually, a big puppy, was especially friendly and affectionate. Whenever we came home, the dog would jump on us, and slather us with wet kisses. One problem, however, was the dog's continued effort to raid the garbage can when we were away, and make a mess on the kitchen floor. I got the idea of trying to stop this behavior, by spanking the pets whenever they went into the garbage. They learned not to do it when we were around.

However, what happened next was unexpected. When we came home, the pets no longer came to greet us, but instead ran away. And there still was a mess all over the kitchen floor from the spilled garbage. The pets never seemed to learn not to go into the garbage! Never! Everytime we went out, and then came back home, the garbage can was overturned. And we would yell and spank both the cat and dog. Each day we would spank harder, especially the dog, but to no avail. The only effect that I noticed, was that the pets learned to run away faster, as soon as they heard our footsteps coming up the stairs. Clearly, my experience was that punishment does not work, at least not with cats and dogs. Eventually we solved this particular problem by always emptying the garbage before we left the house, or hiding it in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. And the pets returned to their normal affectionate selves.

As the dog grew, my sister then decided to keep it outside in a dog house. My sister would tell me that she had great difficulties controlling the dog. She said it was incredibly strong, and would literally drag her around on the leash. She told me that she could not figure out how to train it. Many times during the night, it would break loose, and then raid the garbage can. Then, the neighbors started complaining that their garbage cans were also being raided. Eventually, my sister had the dog put to sleep. Many years later, while visiting a pet store, I saw a framed picture of a dog on one of the shelves, having a strong similarity to the one my sister had. It was labeled "Rottweiler." I then started laughing. You see, neither my sister or myself ever knew what kind of dog we had, and I guess, we never checked. However, after seeing the picture, everything started to click. The dog's behavior then made perfect sense. The dog was simply very hungry and could not restrain itself. My sister told me that the dog seemed to require an incredible amount of food, but because she was on a tight budget, she could only feed it a certain amount, which the dog would eat ravenously. And Rottweiler's grow up to be pretty hefty dogs, often vicious. I've also wondered since my discovery, whether someone at my sister's place of work, was playing a rather mean game with her, and laughing hilariously behind the scenes, because I'm sure my sister would tell the staff about how much trouble her dog was giving her.

The End

More Dog Troubles

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) also had dog troubles of his own, as described by one group of researchers working in his lab:

"In a famous experiment by Shenger-Krestovnika, published in 1921, a dog was trained to salivate to a circle but not to an ellipse. The ellipse was then made progressively more like a circle. When the ratio of the axes of the ellipse was reduced to 9:8, the dog could discriminate it from a circle only with great difficulty. It showed some signs of success on this problem for about three weeks, but then its behavior was disrupted. It was unable to respond correctly not only on this difficult task, but also when presented with obvious ellipses and circles that had given it no trouble in the earlier part of the experiment. What is more, instead of coming to stand quietly in the apparatus of the past, the animal now showed extreme excitement, struggling and howling" (Gray, 1979).

This work was brought to my attention by a University professor/psychotherapist, who also informed me that this dog eventually had to be put to sleep! It never was able to recover from the "experimental neurosis," induced by Pavlov. This result is even more amazing because the conditioning did not involve punishment! The dog was merely trained to perform a discrimination. When it couldn't do it, it went crazy! Later, he and his coworkers discovered lots of other ways to create neurotic dogs. These results were so remarkable, that at the age of eighty, Pavlov launched himself into an entirely new career in a different field, to understand psychopathology. He soon was visiting psychiatric wards several times a week, discussing the various cases with the psychiatrists!

What is even more insidious, is that our entire educational system, as it exists today, is based on this type of learning! Children daily are asked by teachers to make discriminations that they cannot make, and when they make a mistake, they are punished! (The process is often referred to as "operant conditioning" or instrumental learning.) The result is that we have become a society of "low risk perfectionists." By the 5th grade, most children will no longer risk answering a teacher's question unless they are absolutely, positively sure that they have the correct answer! I remember I became this way, because I literally trembled with fear when I was called upon to answer, and I never volunteered! The worst was when the teacher started asking questions going around the room in alphabetical order. Because my name is Yen, I was usually called last, and as a consequence, I spent most of the class period dreading my turn! Talk about cruel and usual punishment! (Incidentally, this is why TV games shows are so exciting. We get a lot of vicarious excitement when the contestant takes a 'risk' answering a question.) But really, the children should be the ones asking the questions, not the teacher! And they need to be free to ask as many as they like! Needless to say, during my school days, I didn't ask very many because I didn't want to look 'stupid' or be called "dumb."

There is more to this story. Like Pavlov's dogs, Gregory Bateson (1956) observed that a schizophrenic adult became that way because as a child, he could not discriminate whether his mother loves him or not! His theory of schizophrenia meshes in well with the ideas of Alice Miller. When kids ask their parents "Why am I being spanked," the parent invariably responds "For Your Own Good," which is the title of one of her books. It is a contradiction of terms and concepts! You don't say to a child "I love you," and then give the child a whack! It is entirely inconsistent! Any young kid can tell you that! Read an anecdote by Astrid Lindgren (1978) to get a feeling from the child' point of view. What Bateson observed was that the child who grows up to be a schizophrenic is forever receiving two conflicting messages that put him into a double bind. The mother says to her child "I love you," but when the child comes to hug, the mother pushes the child away, or stiffens in response to the hug. She really doesn't love the child, but society says she should. So she pretends to love her child. But then the child senses the other message, and pulls away, and the mother then condemns the child with, "How come you don't love me?" This cycle of responses is related to the biblical law "Thou shalt honor thy father and mother," and if you don't, well then you have to pretend, and the internal conflict makes you go crazy. It's damned if you do, damned if you don't.

But we also need to back up one step and ask the question: "Why do so many mothers (parents) feel less than loving to their own children?" We read and hear about so much abuse, neglect, and violence in our society. What are its root causes? "Double bind messages are one reason. Spanking is another. But one more is the lack of attachment that many parents feel for their own children, promoted by our materialistic society. For more on this, see my essay on the loss of attachment and the rise of materialism.

Cat Troubles

The Russian writer Anton Chekhov wrote a short story "Who Was to Blame," about his uncle who tried to teach a kitten to catch mice. Whenever the kitten refused to give chase, his uncle beat it. After the animal grew up into an adult cat, it always cowered in terror in the presence of a mouse. "That," said Chekhov, "is the man who taught me Latin." (Welsh, 1986)

So how does a kitten learn how to hunt mice? I was told the following: In the beginning, the mother cat brings to her hungry kitten a dead mouse for it to eat. After it becomes accustomed to this food, the mother cat brings a mouse that is just barely alive. Then the mother cat, brings progressively more lively mice for her kitten to chase, play with and eat. If the mouse manages to escape, the mother cat recaptures it and brings it back in a more disabled state making sure her kitten achieves success. In this way, the kitten develops its skills in hunting and killing mice, so that it can survive. The mother cat never punishes her little kitten. We humans have much to learn from this mother cat. Read my commentary on this story.

Children cry when in pain. Parents punish their children for crying. I call it child abuse.

"Children attacked by any method are likely to carry the seeds of revenge all their lives and plant them in unexpected places to produce strange fruit." Karl Menninger

Punishment results in discouragement and children pursuing mistaken goals.

Parents react violently when in pain. The system punishes them for being violent. We call it justice.
It is not. It is abuse, all the same.

We often make a flawed interpretation about the meaning of violence. What the violent person really is saying is: "Help! I'm at the end of my rope." Violence emerges when an individual has been treated unfairly by society, when demands are being made that are incompatible with the resources placed at that individual's disposal (Marx, 1976).

The unfairness may begin at birth! (Or before in the case of crack cocaine addicted babies). Children who are abused by their parents, develop insecure/ pathological attachments, which can even lead to violence later in life (Meloy, 1997)). Just as you don't transplant a tree into a new location without including a ball of soil covering its roots, you don't transplant a child into a new home without including some of its mother. A more humane approach might be to have a caring foster family adopt both mother and child together, with therapeutic support from the State. This simple solution to save a family seems less costly than the present uncoordinated efforts of police, doctors, lawyers, judges, social workers, community members, foster parents, hospitals and prisons (Minuchin, 1984).

Incidentally, rewards may not work in the ways you expect! See Jan Hunt's article: "The Trouble with Rewards."

"According to Dreikurs, rewards are no more effective than punishment. He has two primary complaints about rewards: they tend to harm the recipient's personality, and in the long run they cease to be effective. Rewards demonstrate a lack of respect for the other person. We reward our inferiors for good deeds and favors. Rewards also signal a lack of trust-else why would we have to bribe a person for good behavior? Rewards undermine one's sense of responsibility and the satisfaction that comes from participation and contribution freely given. Finally, when the emphasis has been placed on "What's in it for me?" we soon run out of satisfying rewards. The pathetic truth is that the other's demands continually escalate, but there is no reward that totally satisfies. Dreikurs concludes, "The system of rewarding children for good behavior is detrimental to their outlook as the system of punishment....In our mistaken efforts to win cooperation through rewards, we are actually denying our children the basic satisfactions of living." Quote taken from Bolton (1979) who is summarizing a chapter 5 from Dreikur's book, "Children the challenge: The fallacy of punishment and reward."

So what can be done? I recommend reading Aletha Solter's excellent article "Twenty Alternatives to Punishment." Another is to use Natural and logical consequences!

According to Mary Pipher (1996), some insecure adults try to bolster their self-esteem with compliments and affirmations such as "I am loveable." They may even play affirmation tapes on the way to work. But these are essentially rewards to the self. Pipher says "...they have been oversold as a panacea for a difficult life. If a person's work is meaningless and his/her relationships are fragmented, self-validations will only go so far. Then the person needs to make real changes....True self-esteem comes from the belief that one is making the world a better place. It's a byproduct of a life lived wisely....Self-esteem, if real, is self regard and comes from ethical behavior.......self-regard has to do with behaving in accordance with one's value system." Real changes are changing your value system to include care as one of the values, and then improving your skills and knowledge so that you can act more effectively and be more caring. If you value taking advantage of others by lying, stealing or cheating to improve your own position, then no matter what you say to yourself, it won't boost your self-esteem. You'd just be deceiving yourself.


Bateson, Gregory, etal (1956), Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia , reprinted in Bateson, G. (1972), "Steps to an Ecology of Mind," NY:Ballantine, pp. 201-228.
Bolton, Robert, (1979) "People Skills," NY:Simon Schuster, pg. 192.
Dreikurs, Rudolf, (1964) "Children, the Challenge," pp. 68-75.
Gray, Jeffrey A. (1979) "Ivan Pavlov," NY:Viking, pp.119-120.
Lindgren, Astrid (1978) Acceptance speech for the German Trade Book Peace Prize
Marx, Emanuel (1976) "The Social Context of Violent Behaviour," London: Routledge Direct Editions.
Meloy, J. Reid (1997) "Violent Attachments," :Jason Aronson, 392 pgs.
Miller, Alice (1983) "For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, " New York:Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 282 pgs.
Salvador Minuchin. (1984) "A Family Kaleidoscope," Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Pipher, Mary Bray (1996) "The Shelter of Each Other, Rebuilding Our Families,"NY:Putnam pg.158.
Welsh, Patrick (1986) "Tales out of school: a teacher's candid account from the front lines of the American high school today," NY: Viking, pg. 150. Also thanks to jro for helping me find the Chekhov quote, which I then found here. Anyone knowing the location of the original reference, please let me know.

Last updated 23 August 2008

Copyright © 1998-2008 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

E-mail: yen@noogenesis.com

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