Punishment and the Development of Conscience

It's pretty easy to recognize that punishment stirs up angry feelings in a child. Really, it can stir up some pretty angry feelings in all of us. When our spouse doesn't talk to us all day because of something we did or didn't do the day before, it can make us pretty mad--especially if our actions weren't intentional, which is usually the case.

When we punish a child we stir up anger in him, which has the very undesirable effect of "crowding out" his feelings of healthy guilt for his personal failure to behave responsibly. The end result is a blocking of the development of the child's conscience. The child was not given a chance for the feelings of healthy guilt to develop in his conscience before guilt was crowded out by anger. Instead, he was given a reason to experience resentment toward us and the values we are trying to teach him. When we punish our child, scolding, lecturing, reprimanding, hurting, etc. we are acting the part of his conscience ourselves, stirring up angry feelings in the process. These angry feelings are directed at us AND at "conscience," which we are trying to be for our child.

This echoes Dr. Neufeld's assertion that we have to cultivate in our children a capacity to experience mixed feelings, a function of the conscience, in order for our children to mature. Attachment is necessary for maturation, attachment is threatened by punishment, punishment retards the development of conscience.

When we respond to our children with anger, criticism, judgement, we arouse in them angry feelings which inhibit the development of conscience. However, when we respond to our children with understanding, patience, compassion, we arouse loving feelings within them, undermining anger and stripping our children of their innately irrational defenses against accepting blame for their own unacceptable actions. These loving feelings give rise to healthy guilt, which, when allowed to linger, leaves a lasting impression, increasing the child's capacity to experience mixed feelings. This makes possible the arousal of their consciences, their ability to experience mixed feelings, like the little devil on one shoulder and the little angel on the other. Conscience, like Jiminy Cricket, is the force which acts to compete with or inhibit further expressions of childish, antisocial impulses. Mixed feelings cancel eachother out, allowing the individual to make a rational decision as to how to act.

As human beings mature our capacity to experience greater degrees of discrepancy between feelings increases. As our capacity to love grows greater, through our being loved and feeling loved, then the greater becomes our capacity to counterbalance feelings that are opposed to love, allowing us to make conscious, rational decisions about our actions. In sum, it's the cultivation of the virtue of prudence.

Children's impulsiveness is the same as their irrationality. Being unable to sustain mixed feelings, they react to strong feelings without thinking about the consequences of their actions, or the rightness or wrongness of them.

Christ's Passion and Death on the Cross, the greatest act of love known to man, is God's way of providing man with those feelings necessary to counterbalance his sinful impulses. He loved us so much that He gave His life for us so that, by His example and the feelings that are stirred up in us whenever we meditate on His act of love, we might be able and know how to love Him in return.

I believe it's safe to say that many young adults do not reach full maturity until after they've had children of their own, because only then do they have experimental knowledge of a love great enough to counterbalance their own selfish, sinful impulses. How scary to think, however, that so many of them have made the permanently life altering choice of a spouse, a decision almost always accompanied by very strong feelings, while they are still emotionally immature!

On the other hand, this demonstrates what a tremendous blessing a child, a baby, is to a family. A baby, so innocent and helpless, and utterly loveable, helps everyone in the family to learn selfless love. Perhaps this is why so many of us are discovering the secret joys and benefits of the large family raised up by love. Unfortunately too many are discovering the heartache of the family, large or not, raised up by force and fear. And why would St. Paul have lied to us when he said, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." It's time we considered our family members our neighbors, and started treating them as we ourselves would wish to be treated--with love that not just is, but looks and feels like love, as well--the kind of love we wish to receive through the kind of expressions of love we can understand.

No comments:

Catholic Attachment Parenting

A philosophy of parenting modeled after the self-donative love exemplified in the relationship between Mary and Jesus.

1 Jn 4:18

"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love."

Luke 1:17

"...to turn the hearts of the parents toward their children..."