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Crime in punishment

Hands up — how many of us have received more than one traffic fine in the last year? While we are asking, how many of us received corporal punishment at school more than once? Why should we be asked such questions? If we have received the same fine more than once, it has not worked. The punishment is not effective — it may have boosted the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) coffers, but it has not changed the way we drive. Similarly, if we received corporal punishment more than once, it did not work either — it may have boosted the school authorities’ ego but it did not change the way we behaved.

by Tim Middleton

Many people view corporal punishment as being “strong discipline” — it will toughen the kids up. Many argue it did not do them any harm (though we may enquire if it did them any good) so it should be allowed. The fact that most people have received corporal punishment more than once though is similar to the alarming statistic that over 70% of offenders who spend time in prison become re-offenders.

Why is this so? The answer may well be in the simple fact that we do not know the difference between punishment and discipline. We think that if we punish a child we are disciplining them but that is not so — there can be punishment without discipline and discipline without punishment. Our problem is we only deal with punishment and do not focus on (or even understand) discipline.

There is a serious problem with punishments. All too often punishments do not fit the crime (the same punishment is given for very different offences), do not follow the crime (often there is a significant time delay between the offence and the punishment, which means that no connection is made), do not fit the person (two different people can react in very different ways to the same punishment) and do not prevent the crime happening again. Furthermore, they do not require any thought; most are mindless and a waste of time, as a result of which the offender becomes bored (or gets hurt) and re-commits. Punishments often end up being purely inconvenient and become simply part of the regular routine (Friday detention or fine to police). They often do not work as they do not change the mindset — they only make the culprit angry and more determined not to get caught.

We must be careful not to consider discipline as being about retribution (seeking punishment and vengeance). This simply leads to lots of negative emotions and does not right the wrongs. Equally, we must not see discipline as restitution (seeking repayment). This may correct the balance but it does not change behaviour. Nor is it about reconciliation (“causing two people to be in friendly relations again”). It is not simply a matter of saying “I’m sorry” so everything is fine again. Where there has been wrong, it requires forgiveness and for that to be given, there has to be more than regret or remorse but ultimately real repentance. Repentance rarely comes from punishment.

In contrast, discipline is about learning, coming from the Latin word “disco”, to learn (many of us know how learning Latin seemed like punishment). Discipline is about training. It comes through honest realisation of what was wrong and its effects. It comes through finding a positive resolution, so that people may have the closure they desire and deserve. It comes through reformation, a change in understanding, attitude and behaviour so that it is not repeated. Ultimately, it is concerned with full Restoration — restoration for the victim concerned, with their integrity upheld and their dignity refreshed, as well as restoration for the offender, not necessarily to previous positions, but to society at large. In addition, we must restore credibility, confidence, safety and order in the system. Restoration must be humbling not humiliating, gentle not judgmental.

Not only do we confuse punishment and discipline, we use punishment more than discipline. In truth, the punishments we give may actually be the crime. Punishment is about overseers teaching lessons and exercising authority; discipline is about individuals learning values and changing behaviour. It is not punishment that is needed but discipline. Prison, road blocks, school punishment are not working. In ranking systems, corporal punishment leads to major embarrassment and ultimately general decay. When will we learn the truth about discipline? We, and our children, will win hands down if we move from petty punishments to deliberate discipline.

Tim Middleton is the executive director of the Association of Trust Schools and author of the book on “failure” called Failing to Win.
email: ceo@atschisz.co.zw
website: www.atschisz.co.zw

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