The cognitive dissonance of punishment and outcomes

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I’ve been a dad now for more than 6 years. It’s been a wonderful trip and there is no end in sight. I am and have been for years, dedicated to providing my kids with 24/7 tech support for life.

Every day I’m helping my kids to solve problems. We collaborate to solve problems, and I explain myself well enough that they can grasp why we need to solve a particular problem.

Long before I was married, I learned that my anger is never justified, and that I must keep my side of the street clean. I had known that a life with no criticism was a life of peace. When my wife and I had our first child, I knew that this was what I wanted to teach my kids.

As a new father, I wanted to learn as much as I could about parenting, I found this article, long ago, written by a mom who decided to stop criticizing her kids for a month. Her kids did a 180, and life got better. I’ve known that criticism is poison for the mind, so I avoid criticism. Criticism as punishment is common in America, and I spent at least a decade myself as a younger man, taming the voice in my head to stop criticizing myself. So even before I got married, I already had this figured out, and I was already avoiding criticizing people (except for politicians), including my wife and kids.

I have developed a few basic rules that I follow with my kids. My kids are not here to make me happy. That’s not their job. Their job is to grow up and learn the natural consequences of their actions. I’m not here to be the consequence of their actions, either. It’s not my job to inflict pain on my kids when they make a mistake. They already experience pain when they make a mistake, and they learn from their own mistakes without any intervention from me.

I also focus on myself and my part in challenging behavior when it presents itself. What part did I play in it? Did I escalate? Did my wife escalate? You know, when parents lose control of their feelings and act on them, that is not discipline. Kids are watching us all the time and they learn from us. They learn challenging behavior from their parents.

In Western Culture, and in particular, religious culture, it had long been believed that kids were not even human, even evil. And that meant it was up to the parents to beat the evil out of the kids. Evil is a supernatural attribution to challenging behavior. Evil, to be generous, is a superstition.

In our culture, we act like evil is a force of nature, just as if good is a force of nature. Both “forces” are really expressed as learned behavior. If we are to divide the world into evil and good, then they are “confused” and “less confused”, respectively.

Both evil and good people demonstrate skills. Evil people have mastered a certain set of skills, just like good people have. Are those skills productive? Do they support our survival? Do they enable us to be free? And where did they learn those skills? They learn those skills from their caregivers and usually, that means us.

Kids learn empathy from their parents. If you show no empathy for your kids, they will not learn the skill of empathy for others. Psychopaths lack empathy for others. They don’t register a difference between pain and pleasure when they look at other people. They lack the skills to get along with others because they lack the skill of empathy. Sometimes, we call this behavior, “evil”. Parents who inflict punishment on their kids must set aside empathy to do so.

Likewise, when a parent models empathy for their babies and their kids, their kids learn to have empathy for others. They learn to consider others before they take action. They learn to help others. They find satisfaction in cooperation and collaboration. Sometimes, we call this behavior, “good.”

A certain person has been quoted to have said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Right there, we see acknowledgement that evil is really just ignorance. Evil is evidence of a lack of skills that are desirable in a civilized society. Yet, how quick we are to punish someone for their “bad” behavior. I think it was someone else who said, “Vengeance is mine.” Dare I say that some people are playing God?

Lately, I’ve been watching shows like Lucifer (Netflix), a story about the angel who was cast out of heaven to manage Hell. In this series, Lucifer takes a hiatus from running Hell. Other angels visit him with encouragement to get back to work. But Lucifer is content to help an earthly detective solve crimes, for he only wants to make sure that the right person is punished. I have to admit that some of the scenes are very funny. The show is a bit juvenile at times, and the laughs keep me coming back. But the subject is very serious.

In that show, Lucifer isn’t concerned with teaching skills. He’s only concerned with punishment, for that is his charge. At the same time, he is encouraging other people to engage in “sin”. I also saw a scene where he told one person to “get his act together”, as if it was up to him to be a better person. Isn’t that odd that Lucifer wants people to be better people of their own free will? I could not help but notice that this version of Lucifer aligns well with that of the Satanists.

I have also been watching The Sinner, starring Bill Pullman and Jessica Biel. I am fascinated with the desire of the sinner to punish herself, a behavior learned from her parents, especially, her mom. She doesn’t know why she behaves as she does, yet she punishes herself anyway. I am also fascinated by the detective, played by Bill Pullman, as a man more interested in truth than punishment. He really wants to know why Jessica Biel’s character acted the way she did. Both shows are well worth watching as examples of popular culture.

What I see in those examples, and in the culture I live in, is that there is so much emphasis on punishment, we get lost in the zeal of punishment and forget about potential outcomes. We sincerely believe that punishment will change other person. A consequence of this line of thinking is that we must look outside ourselves for happiness.

Sarcasm is punishment. Criticism is punishment. Withholding love is punishment. Passive aggression is punishment. Speeding tickets, courts, jails, prisons, the death penalty, and on and on and on. The expectation is that all punishment will change the other person for the better. If only we could change the other person, we’d be happy. Still looking outside for happiness, eh?

As a kid, I can recall an episode in my life where my parents fought over dinner time. Mom would make dinner for Dad, expecting him home at a particular time. Dad would always be late and the dinner would be cold. Then Dad would complain. This cycle persisted for what seemed like years until Mom changed her response.

Instead of agitating for change with my dad, she was just nice, and she adapted. Whatever she did, she literally took the wind out of his sails. She was so nice that Dad started coming home when said he would. They no longer had conflicts over dinner time because one person was aware enough of her behavior to change her response. Dad had no other choice but to change his. And the change came about not from punishment, but from kindness.

In all my experience as a dad, as a son, as an avid reader of psychology, self-improvement and other like materials, I can attest that the two most likely outcomes of punishment are rebellion and obedience. When I was punished as a kid, I rebelled, often quietly, surreptitiously. I was also obedient when I found that to have better results, to be profitable. I also learned how to be “invisible”. These are some of the skills taught by punishment.

I have applied what I have learned over 20 years of study to my own kids. I avoid punishment and instead teach the skills my kids need to solve problems. One thing I learned is that kkids exhibit challenging behavior when they lack the skills they need to respond proactively to the demands of their environment.

So when I see challenging behavior, I see that as a symptom, not a cause. I talk with my kids to see what’s up. I collaborate with them to explain the problem, why I want to solve the problem and then learn from them what they see in the problem, too. In every case where I take an active interest in them and the problems they are trying to solve, and collaborate with them to solve the problems they are working through, the challenging behavior goes away. The mere act of collaboration teaches kids the skills they need to get along with others.

Conversely, punishment leads to isolation. Punishment leads to more challenging behavior because it really doesn’t solve the problem. Punishment doesn’t teach the skills people need to live together, in peace. This isn’t to say we should not restrain people when they are violent and pose a threat to others. But if we’re going to do that, if we want to be humane, we must teach the people we restrain the skills they need to find their own peace with others.

Authoritarians teach punishment, not skills. Religious authoritarians assume that God supports their “right” to punish others, without teaching any skills. It is supposed that we must pray for better behavior rather than to teach the skills we need to live in peace. And if prayer doesn’t work, then violence or threats of violence are, “authorized”.

Each threat of violence comes with a shot of adrenaline. Each act of violence comes with a shot of adrenaline. This adrenaline is addictive for all parties concerned and distracts us from the task of collaborating to solve the problem that give rise to the challenging behavior in the first place. And once the cycle of violence starts, it’s hard to stop, especially if it is hidden. Family secrets are poison.

It is only with sharing that the cycle stops. That is why support groups like Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics exist. When we share with others our misdeeds, our misfortunes, we can see that we’re not alone. We’re purpose built for collaboration, and I have decades of evidence and experience to prove it.

To me, the difference in outcomes between punishment and collaboration are like night and day. I’ve seen it myself first hand, where there is punishment, there is only grief and remorse. Where there is collaboration to solve problems, we find joy and peace. We only have to decide where we want to focus our attention once we learn the difference in outcomes between punishment and collaboration.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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