The most commonly used and socially acceptable parental response to a display of “irrational” behavior (a temper tantrum, for example) is to punish the child for it. Most parents operate according to the widely held belief that the child will not repeat a form of behavior for which he has been administered a dose of pain. This technique has a kind of surface validity, because very often in the face of repeated punishment and threats of punishment a child will abandon a particular form of behavior. When the offensive form of behavior diminishes in frequency, the parent is reassured that he is following the proper philosophy and fulfilling his duty both to the child and to the broader society.
But unfortunately the problem is more complex. Irrationality has an inner, experiential, unobservable quality as well as an outer, observable behavioral manifestation. When the parent punishes the child, all that the child does is to eliminate the overt evidence of his irrational needs, desires, and way of thinking. Punishment does not change in any manner whatsoever the underlying thought processes that produced the unacceptable behavior originally. The “badness” has merely gone underground.
When a parent depends to a great extent on disapproval and punishment as the means of dealing with their child’s unacceptable behavior, a long-term process of building anger within the child takes place. Gradually and imperceptibly, over a period of years, angry feelings are growing and competing with loving feelings for control of the child’s personality. The parent remains unaware that there is anything to be concerned about because outwardly, in response to punishment, the child is behaving dutifully, and is gradually eliminating all the ways in which “poorly trained” children act. But after years in a “latency” period, the irrational anger that has been accumulating comes to outweigh the power of loving feelings to restrain them. When this occurs, the outward behavior of the child changes radically. A typical delinquent picture then emerges, reflecting the intense angry feelings “inside.” Even at this point it cannot be said that the child does not love his parents. He still loves them and at times may act very lovingly. But the angry feelings predominate and determine the major portion of the child’s behavior.
The change from good to bad behavior is often sudden, occurring most frequently when the child approaches adolescence. For this reason, parents are likely to blame the change on chance coincidences, not recognizing that they are witnessing the fruition of a lifelong process. Some parents review their own behavior and conclude that they had not been punitive enough, believing that if they had just been tougher, they would have gained complete control over the child’s bad impulses. And some people blame drugs, as if the use of drugs, rather than being symptomatic of a person “sick” with rage, had caused the child’s behavior to change.
Parents who assess the situation in this manner are merely deceiving themselves. They are either unaware of or are refusing to recognize the long-term deterioration in their relationship with their child. If parents can recognize and acknowledge the threat that punishment presents to the parent-child relationship, they can take steps while their child is still young to protect the relationship.
There is no “speedy” way to train children to behave properly. What appears to be rapid training must always depend on the fear of pain, and fear of pain achieves only one end: it empties the “love bank”*, setting the stage for later difficulty.