There have been many times in history when punishments did not fit the crime. In 1776 there were almost 200 capital offenses in England. The list included crimes like stealing a horse or nice candlesticks.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in part of his masterful (but long-winded) work Democracy in America, contrasts the justice system in America with that in France in the 1800s. He tells how, in France, a person could be executed for stealing candlesticks. Often, however, the criminal would be let free because, well, death for candlesticks just doesn’t seem quite right. Judges, juries and public opinion cried for mercy.
In America, he argued, punishments actually fit the crime, so they were respected.
Photo by Robin Davis
What on earth does this have to do with the 21st century? Well, a lot. For parents. (Am I weird that a history book made me think of parenting?) We’ve all witnessed the scene of a mom with an ornery kid in Wal-mart:
The child pulls a Snicker bar off the shelf.
“Put that back Johnny,” says mom.
“But I’m hungry,” Johnny retorts.
“But I said put it back.” [Duh!]
Johnny puts it back but grabs a Kit Kat and grins at Mom.
“Put that back RIGHT NOW or, or you can’t have candy for a year!”
We can sympathize with Frazzled Mom, but rest assured she won’t carry out her threat. Dad will intervene, siblings will plead, Johnny will start behaving and Mom will give in. The punishment did not fit the crime.
Whether in Wal-mart, the van or at home, moms often resort to threats to get their child to behave. “Your room better be clean in five minutes or you won’t get any dinner!” “Stop kicking your sister’s seat or we’ll quit soccer!”
It may work the first few times, but sooner or later Johnny will realize that Mom won’t carry through on her threat.
Rather than resorting to daunting threats that you know won’t get carried through, establish rules with reasonable rewards and consequences. And always follow through. Let Johnny know that pulling food off the grocery store shelves means that he won’t get a snack on the way home (for example). Let him see that your rules are just and that disobedience is rewarded. Every time. Justly.
Johnny will start to respect the rules when he finds that the punishments are just… and he can’t finagle his way out of them!
Am I the only one that finds parenting tips in odd places? Have you?