by Jordan Poyner

In raising me, one thing my parents did exceptionally well was to impress upon me the relationship between love and punishment. Superficially, this is (and was) a difficult idea to grasp. Punishment–as an extension or aspect of discipline–doesn’t seem like affection or a sign of endearment. Although, as adults, we understand that love is more complex than fondness, it was hard for a younger me to understand how discomfort or pain could be connected to love. Even looking through older eyes, I am struck by the failure of our culture to properly enact the relationship between love and punishment. Prison doesn’t look like love, and school administrators often fail to express a higher purpose to the students they discipline. Yet punishment rightly motivated is related to love, must incorporate love, and should be born out of love.

In almost every instance of disciplinary action they took with me, my parents were careful to explain to me how the act of punishment was engendered by their love for me. Once, after having been clearly told not to throw sticks at my brother and proceeding to do just that, my parents took me somewhere private, explained why what I had done was wrong–and that they loved me–and spanked me. My point here isn’t to advocate for physical punishment, but to emphasize the importance of communicating the purpose and importance of punishment in the first place. The merits of discipline lay not in simply following orders or rules, but in impressing upon a developing mind the virtue of self-denial for the sake of others, and the reality that our actions have consequences. By expressing that they were responsible–to a great extent–for my moral development, my parents made plain to me that punishment was an act of love and responsibility.

This is a delicate issue today. Our culture is growing increasingly wary of certain forms of punishment, especially corporal. This is for good reason, as the application of physical pain as a punishment is often badly misused, even borders on abuse. Yet the trend towards a gentler and more enlightened mode of discipline is troubling in its own right. As more parents shift their disciplinary methods from negative to positive reinforcement, they risk confusing their children as to the motivation for good action. By rewarding children for good behavior we suggest to them that goodness is meant to be met with just dessert. The truth of this world, however, is that goodness is just as (if not more) likely to be disparaged or ignored than be recognized and rewarded. This is not to say that parents should refrain from encouraging good decisions, but individuals must be prepared to act morally even without the incentive of praise or benefit.

By the same token, a discipline which merely understands punishment as a default response to bad behavior fails to offer individuals a moral framework which survives the absence of a figure of authority. To be clear, I am not suggesting that punishment and encouragement are diametrically opposed, and that one is a better method than the other. Raising children is a deeply personal affair and requires a flexibility and consideration that belies any formula or system. Regardless of the exact method parents use to discipline their children, what matters are the reasons behind the practice. Love should be the driving force behind parents’ attempts to educate their children. In teaching children that respect for others–in the form of self-sacrifice or moderation–is a virtue, and that their actions have meaningful ramifications, parents are forming better individuals. And moving beyond the family, perhaps it is time we seriously reconsider such ideas as they function (or fail to function) in our criminal justice system and other corrective social institutions.

Jordan Poyner is a recent graduate of Indiana University, where he studied English literature, film theory, art, and anthropology.