Larry Brendtro and Lesley du Toit
Intimidation is an acknowledgement of the weakness of
your point of view.
— Desmond Tutu
The effectiveness of “get tough” approaches is greatly exaggerated. A colleague 105 described how the Irish Republican Army [IRA] tried in vain to control youthful car thieves, called “joy riders,” with the most severe punishments imaginable. The IRA would drive these boys from the community, but they returned. Families would be threatened. When all else failed, youth would be taken out and “knee-capped” with a bullet fired through each leg to cripple them. But as soon as the joy riders could hobble out of the hospital with casts and crutches, they would defiantly steal another car. Punishment only fuelled “angry pride” and hardened hatred of punishers.
Punishment motivates rebellion rather than teaching responsible self-control 106. Young people with histories of abuse by adults construe coercive discipline as hostile attacks. 107 Punishment reinforces the bias that the world is hostile and respect must be gained by threat and coercion. 108
Coercive discipline can complicate racial distrust. Leon Fulcher of New Zealand suggests that such treatment can threaten “cultural safety” when dealing with youth who come from backgrounds, such as Maori, where discipline is based on respect.109 Those who lack understanding of youth from other cultures are also more likely to be threatened by challenging behaviour and respond in ways that cause racial conflict. 110
Coercive discipline triggers powerful stress reactions sparking fear and frustration. 111 Hostile criticism stirs angry feelings. Restraint and isolation are highly destructive to mental health. The immediate brain effects of coercive conflicts can endure for many hours, keeping the individual on edge and hyper-reactive to provocation. Recurrent coercive treatment can cause permanent changes in personality as persons develop reactive patterns of defensiveness or hostility.
Coercive discipline models bullying. Studies in natural camp settings showed that children subjected to autocratic adult leaders reproduce this pattern among their own peers. When not directly supervised by authority, the youngsters expressed hostility for their adult leaders and bullied and scapegoated weaker youngsters. 112
Decades of research show that coercion propels youngsters on the pathway to problem behaviour. When a child is in distress, the responsive adult acts to meet the child’s needs and calms the child.113 But if caregivers react with hostility – or if they indulge tantrums – the dance of disturbance begins. Participants in coercive cycles display negative behaviour, emotions, and thinking towards one another. 114
Coercive discipline contaminates the relationship between a troubled young person and those who could provide positive guidance. Social control comes from positive social bonds to family, elders, school staff, mentors, and positive peers. 115 These relationships are protective factors that prevent high risk behaviour.
Punishment packs a punch by causing physical, social, or emotional pain. Paradoxically, problem behaviour springs from physical, emotional, or social pain. While the threat of punishment may compel compliance, it does little to build the strengths of youth.
Brendtro, L. and du Toit, L. (2005). Response Ability Pathways: Restoring Bonds of Respect. Cape Town: Pretext Publishers
106 Rotherem-Borus, M. J., & Duan, N. (2003). Next generation of preventive interventions. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 42(5), 518-526.
107 Dodge, K., & Somberg, D. (1987). Hostile attribution biases among aggressive boys are exacerbated under conditions of threat to the self. Child Development, 58, 213-234.
108 Beck, A. (1999). Prisoners of hate: The cognitive basis of anger, hostility, and violence. New York, HarperCollins.
109 Fulcher, L. (2001). Cultural safety: Lessons from Maori wisdom, Reclaiming Children and Youth, 10(3), 153-157.
110 The issue of race is ignored in most conflict management models says James Cunningham. See: Cunningham, J. (2003). A “cool pose”: Cultural perspectives on conflict management. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 12(2), 88-92. For training programs to address problems of racism, see: Newkirk, R. & Rutstein, N. (2000). Racial healing. Albion, MI: National Resource Center for the Healing of Racism.
111 Niehoff, D. (1999). The biology of violence. New York: Free Press.
112 Lewin, K., Lippit, R. & White, R. K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior: An experimentally created “social climate.” Journal of Social Psychology, X, 271-279,
113 Bell, D. M. & Ainsworth, M. (1972). Infant crying and maternal responsive lens. Child Development, 43, 1171-1190.
114 Patterson, G. R. (2002b). The early development of coercive family processes. In J. B. Reid, G. Patterson, & J. Snyder (Eds.), Antisocial behavior in children and adolescents (pp. 25-44). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
115 Travis Hirschi is the leading theorist on the relationship between social bonding and social control. See: Akers, R., & Sellers, C. (2004). Criminological theories: introduction, evaluation, and application. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury Publishers.