Teaching vs. Punishment: A Ping-Pong Parable

This article is part 2 in a 3-part series on punishment.

Punishing my children is my go-to method. What do I do instead?!

I have no idea.

Kidding.  😉

One parenting expert responds to this question by saying: “What’s the alternative? Such a question is more complicated than it seems because there isn’t one particular practice that serves as a replacement for punishments and rewards.”

What I will be suggesting is the creation of an entirely different dynamic in which we see the parent-child relationship. The ‘alternative,’ in other words, doesn’t consist of specific techniques; it consists of a new lens and truth-based principles.

Keep in mind, that there is no quick and easy answer to this. This really needs to be in a book form rather than an article. In our buy-now-pay-later world, it’s easy to want happy, obedient children and to want them now. We want an external indicator for how we are doing as a person and as a parent. So we let those indicators impact how we feel about ourselves and our children even when those indicators aren’t the healthiest and most accurate measuring tool. In my first blog post, Parenting isn’t Rocket Science…it’s Harder!  I warned against this quick-fix approach to parenting. Most punishment is like a credit card, get the behavior now and pay later with interest.

Fear vs. Faith-based Discipline

For those you who are people of faith you might be pained and interested to know that compelling a behavior through punishment is often (not always) fear-based rather than faith-based parenting. Before you get offended and delete yourselves from our mailing list, let me explain.

One prophet explained faith this way: “Faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”

With threats, bribes, and punishments I can almost force the indicator for how I’m doing as a parent–my child’s behavior–even though what we really hope for is deep, abiding character in our kids. When a child is compelled to act a certain way–whether through punishments or bribes–it is the parents that are rewarded for such methods. We get the desired action. You might say we get the witness that tells us we’re doing okay as a parent. To get to the point. “For you receive no [character] until after the trial of your [patience and effective teaching].”

I doubt Alma was watching his son (Alma the younger) destroy himself and the church of God while thinking, “If only I had grounded him more or been more clever in punishing him.”

“Stop Whacking the Table!”

I mentioned in part 1 of this article that we often think that punishment is a form of teaching and the lesson we hope children are learning is loud (sometimes literally) and clear. Yet, too often, our punishments are corrective actions, not teaching moments. The following story will not give any heinous crimes or mistakes (you can watch Supernanny for that), but I hope it provides a backdrop to illustrate several principles or lessons about teaching.

Recently I was playing ping-pong in our basement with two of my daughters, Eleanor (age 4) and Naomi (age 7). (If you’ve guessed that I spent more time picking up balls off the floor rather than hitting them you’d be right.) Naomi was on one side of table and Eleanor and I were on the other. I can serve balls right to Naomi’s sweet spot so she will often hit two or three balls in a row. With Eleanor I have to drop a ball right in front of her and she waves her paddle around until she makes contact with the ball . . . sometimes with the backside of her paddle.  🙂

I noticed that Eleanor’s first attempt was to swing down at the ball; she would whack the table on her follow through. So naturally, for the sake of the table and the paddle I told her to stop doing that.

Pause the story!

Don’t Just Tell

As often as we can, we need to ask and invite rather than simply tell or command. You can show more respect for your children and treat them as agents if you follow this basic principle. So I should have asked:: “Eleanor, could you stop hitting the table?”

Ok. On with the show.

The next two attempts from Eleanor produced the same result. She actually hit the ball but again the paddle came down on the table. So I lazily thought that if I made it more clear she would stop. “Please don’t hit the table. Try it like this.” I swung my paddle from my side showing how to hit a forehand.

Pause again!

Telling and lecturing is not teaching. Many parents say that they talk and tell and still can’t get the behavior. Then conclude that talking is ineffective. That is like saying “I type and I type and I can’t still can’t produce a good novel. Obviously typing is ineffective!” I think you get the point.

But there is a second and third principle or lesson on the way. Am I keeping her age and level of understanding in mind if I simply repeat myself over and over? Do I really think that repeating something often while increasing in volume will really create a master ping-pong player? No. But this sort of “teaching” happens way too often.

The third lesson is I can either attach dark motives to Eleanor’s actions and assume she is being stubborn or obstinate. Or her actions can be seen as an indicator that she lacks understanding, which means I need to learn to connect and teach more effectively.

Back to ping-pong.

Seeing Real Results

After demonstrating (modeling is key, but not enough) how to swing the paddle, I noticed she was really trying, but struggled to hit the ball. Even though she had more success making contact with the ball swinging down, she still tried to do as daddy was doing it. I decided to be more involved in the teaching moment and stood behind her. I then put my hand over her hand that was holding the paddle and as balls came our way we swung together. I also had fun with it so every time she hit the ball–with my help–I lifted her arm in the air and made a strange victory growl.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the bond between us increased. Eleanor started understanding what it felt like to swing the paddle correctly and make contact. I let her practice on her own and I saw improvement. But more importantly I saw her confidence grow in her ability to learn and my ability to teach.

You may think that this is a silly story that doesn’t tell you what to do with your teen who has defied you for the umpteenth time; or that hitting the ping-pong table with a paddle is not a big deal (which it isn’t). If this is the case, then perhaps you are missing point–the bigger picture. Learning to control emotions is more difficult than learning to hit a ball. No punishment ever taught emotional regulation. I’ll give a more serious example in part 3 and show the negative effects of punishment and the positive effects of connecting, patience, and effective teaching.


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