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19 AUGUST 2000
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readers' questions

Let the punishment fit the crime?

Question: If we are going to be absolutely fair and consistent, shouldn't we simply have a clear set of rules whereby each bad behavior has a clear punishment associated with it?

That would be nice – it would save us all from thinking! – but we child care workers would never really want to get away with such a racket. I'm afraid that every case has to be decided on its own merits. And this would have to include a very thorough consideration of both the child and the behavior. Maier (1987, 112) warns that “to be 'consistent' is not necessarily a virtuous position. On the contrary, it is neither an acceptable nor a desirable quality. To align our responses in terms of the individual child is far more effective and natural, and in no way a deficient response."

The behavior and the child
The same behavior can have entirely different meanings for different children. When we are trying to draw a youngster out of shy and withdrawing behaviors which are affecting his social development and relationship skills, some self-assertive behavior is to be encouraged; in an overbearing or bullying child we would want to discourage such behavior. So one always has to consider the behavior in terms of what we are working towards in each individual child. We also have to make difficult calls between the seriousness of some misbehavior and the urgency of promoting a child's development or improvement. In other words, is the misbehavior so important that we must interrupt some growth or progress in order to 'punish' it?

American General Colin Powell writes in Reader's Digest the story of an error which he made as a young infantry officer. His senior, Captain Miller, chose not to throw the book at him. “Today the army might hold an investigation, call in lawyers and enter a bad mark on my record. Miller gave me the chance to learn from my mistake," says Powell. He goes on: “When someone stumbles, I don't believe in stamping on him. My philosophy is: pick 'em up, dust 'em off, and get 'em moving again."

That is generally pretty good advice, but sometimes the misbehavior is itself so serious as to impede progress or put the youngster at serious risk. In such a case we do have to decide to target the behavior. Hoghughi offers these useful objectives when faced with challenging behavior:

  1. Enhancement of whatever is considered to be worthwhile, good and desirable. Focus on achievements and strengths

  2. Conservation of whatever is considered to be worthwhile in its own right or not warranting change. Respect of beliefs, culture, etc.

  3. Curbing, reducing and eliminating of whatever is considered to be damaging, bad and unacceptable.

We may have to set up a formal “logical consequences" agreement with a youngster for a particular recurrent behavior, like coming in late or not performing set duties. But this is a special arrangement and is not applicable to general behavior.

Observing a young girl, I once commented to a senior child care worker on what seemed to be lax controls over smoking in the children's home. The worker replied: “This youngster is fifteen and in a short year or two will have to be looking after herself in the real world. She has such problems with major issues like trust, identity and self-protection, that I am not going to squander valuable time and relationship gains on a war about smoking." That made me think. It was a courageous decision, because an important priority was recognized “even though it might draw criticism from others. It is considerations like these which make us think more carefully about over-simple ideas like “let the punishment fit the crime."


Hoghughi, M. (1988) Treating Problem Children. London: Sage Publications

Maier, H. (1987). Developmental Group Care of Children and Youth. New York: Haworth