The Cost Of Retribution For Human Error

…Is far greater than the cost of helping other people prevent or fix their mistakes.

A child sits at the kitchen table, enjoying her breakfast, makes a careless move of her arm, and spills the milk. The mother, already pressed for time to get the kids to school, scolds the child until the child cries. Then the mother cleans up the milk, in silence, without even once looking at the child in the eye. The child now knows the cost of making a mistake in the presence of an adult child.

Alternatively, the mother could respond in kindness and compassion. Rather than scold the child, the mother could just clean up the milk and explain what happened so that the child understands. The cost of the milk doesn’t matter. An enlightened mother would know that there is no use in making a child cry over spilled milk. The adult mother makes the time to explain to the child what happened and what they can do to prevent that from happening again.

I’ve personally seen this contrast between myself and my wife. Where my wife, a woman from a somewhat authoritarian culture in Vietnam, would swerve to punishment, I would try to explain the mistake and fix the mess. I love my wife and I have tried to explain the difference in approach, and I’ve modeled it, too. I’ve found that just by modeling it, my approach has been rubbing off on her.

I have seen the difference in approaches to child discipline so many times and seen the accumulated distress caused by punishment, versus helping the child to see the problems and fix them, that I have made a central change in my philosophy of life with other people, not just kids.

I have tried both ways. I have tried punishing people for their mistakes and I’ve tried helping people with their mistakes. In retrospect, the balance of the benefit is clearly on the side of helping people with their mistakes. To me, the difference between the two is that of destruction and creation. Punishment is destructive. Helping is creative.

I have changed my assumptions about people to get to this place. I started out with a great deal of conflict and trouble raising my first child with my wife. The Vietnamese culture has a tradition of authoritarian parenting styles (hopefully a change is underway). I didn’t know this when I got married but learned the hard way as our kids grew up. My experience and research on this topic led me to some very interesting resources for understanding child development.

My research turned up one of the most interesting bodies of research on the topic of child discipline that I have ever found: Lives In The Balance. From their home page:

It’s true, you reap what you sow. If we handle kids with power and control, that’s what we get back. But what happens if we collaborate with them — as partners — instead? Lives in the Balance is devoted to moving things in that very direction.

We have some ideas. Ideas about how behaviorally challenging kids should be understood. And about treating them in ways that are more compassionate and effective. Ideas about treating all kids in ways that are non-punitive, non-adversarial, and collaborative, and that teach them skills on the better side of human nature.

In all of my research, this was the first source that laid out the issues in a plain and easy to understand way. “Kids would do better if they could.” “Kids present challenging behavior due to unsolved problems and lagging skills.”

I’ve never seen kids improve with punishment. I’ve never seen kids improve with confrontation. I’ve never seen any kids as adversaries. I’ve seen them confused, bewildered, and unsure of themselves. What we learn from Lives In the Balance and from kids is that non-confrontational, non-punitive solutions work. I know this because I’ve seen it myself.

On numerous occasions, I’ve worked with my kids, talking them through meltdowns, “drilling down” to find out what the problem was that they were trying to solve. Once I found out what the problem was, then we worked together to figure out how to solve the problem together. I can remember the relief I felt when I finally figured out what it was they were after and then building our routines around the solution to the problems they were trying to solve. I found the problems that gave rise to challenging behavior and helped my kids fix them. We came up with durable solutions that were easy to reproduce.

As I write this, I’m reminded of some principle, which I thought was from Machiavelli, but turns out to be Hanlon’s Razor:

never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

I replace the word “stupidity” with ignorance for my own use. The reason for this is that I think that recognition of ignorance is more compassionate than assuming stupidity. I think ignorance explains human suffering much better than stupidity I found the problems that gave rise to challenging behavior. that in my culture at least, there is a tendency to scorn people of lower intelligence than us. In the cultural narrative that I’m familiar with, it’s acceptable to be punitive to people who are “stupid”. And when I use that term “stupid”, there is an assumption here not of intelligence, but of motivation, or lack thereof. We automatically assume that people know better than to do that which we consider being stupid.

So I assume that people would do better if they could. I assume that people are always motivated to do better, but when they fail, they fail due to a lack of skills, information, or intelligence. I don’t worry about motivation anymore. That means I don’t have to take anything personally anymore, too. When it comes to my relationships with people, I am only concerned with our capacity to respond to the problems we encounter. I avoid making any assumption about motivation or a need for punishment.

This change in attitude is starting to filter through our collective consciousness. On the Lives In The Balance website, they highlight an opinion piece in the Herald Tribune newspaper in Florida, “SEIDMAN: Breaking the ‘school to prison’ pipeline”. Therein we find excerpts of an interview with Dr. Ross W. Greene, founder of Lives In The Balance, and the following text:

The CPS [Collaborative & Proactive Solutions] approach requires a change in mindset for anyone who grew up in a “Spare the rod and spoil the child” household, where authoritarian adults made decisions unilaterally. (That’s precisely the kind of upbringing most of today’s parents experienced.) I’d be willing to bet any number of people reading this right now are scoffing at Greene’s ideas, writing them off as permissive hogwash that will only produce willful, undisciplined children.

Yet, Dr. Greene, his team, and other scientists are replicating his results and they are building a large body of evidence to show that using compassion and understanding to work with kids to solve the problems they encounter is at least as effective as behavior modification, without the lasting scars of punishment.

In the past year, we’ve seen riots, protests, police brutality, and talk of law and order. I believe that if we truly want to see law and order, we must acknowledge our contribution to the current conditions. We must accept that we are all part of the same system, we are all connected, and that in some way, we are the keepers of our brothers and sisters. I myself have found that when I hurt someone, I hurt myself. I don’t believe it’s possible to hurt someone without hurting yourself. Science has proven this fact.

The cost of punishing someone for their mistakes is the cost of the relationship we build with that person. It’s the cost of losing that relationship, losing the trust in that bond, or losing that person altogether. The cost of helping someone fix their mistakes is refunded every single time. Businesses are built on helping people fix their mistakes. Countries are built on helping each other. The pursuit of happiness is on a road paved with every person that we have ever helped. The cost of happiness is the task of helping someone, somewhere, one day at a time.

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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