June 27, 2008

There are three reasons for punishment. One is in the hope that we will frighten the offenders and others into a different way of thinking: that in future the activity will have negative associations for them, and so they are less likely to do the activity in future.

Another is so that we the community can satisfy a primal need for retribution or revenge. We want the perpetuators to suffer in a way that will make them feel something of what their victim suffered.

Jail sentences are also of course intended sometimes to protect society from the criminal. Usually when schools expel students, the same reason is given.

Candlebark is not a punishment-based school. We’re not interested in raising children to become adults who do the right thing because they’re afraid of being punished, because we have successfully created an `activity-punishment’ connection in their brains. We’re interested in raising a rather rare kind of adult: the one who does the right thing because morally and philosophically the person thoughtfully understands the nature of their actions and the effects their actions have on others.

This is a much harder path to take, and one that is easily capable of being misunderstood.

Schools should be places where children can make mistakes, and where they will be held safely when they do so.

All crimes fall pretty much into two categories. They are either offences against persons or offences against property. Many of the mistakes children make – the `crimes’ they commit – result in other people getting hurt. As with adults. One of the most awful things for parents is to see their dearly loved child suffering pain and injury, and it seems even worse when the injury is inflicted by another person, because that seems unfair. If a child falls off a bike, we have only one emotion: that of concern for our child (although interestingly, we often look around for something to blame, like a pothole, (`bloody Council’), or, failing that, we encourage the child to `smack the naughty bike’ We are deeply committed to the idea that for every pain there must be a perpetrator).

When a child is deliberately hurt by another, other emotions come into play, including anger.

The trouble is that throughout their lives your child is going to be hurt, sometimes very badly, and often it will be at the hands of others. Equally, your child will often hurt others, except that it’s not necessarily `equally’, because some children are more inclined to inflict pain than are others.

We should admire the parent who is able to concentrate fully on the well-being of their child when the child is hurt by others. To be able to put aside the desire to have other children punished for the mistakes they have made, to recognise that there is another path, is a kind of greatness.

The belief that punishment is the appropriate way to respond to the mistakes children make is entirely understandable – our whole society is a punishment-based one, and we were probably all raised on that principle – but it’s funny that no-one seems to notice how poorly it is working. Those jails just keep getting more and more crowded…

John Marsden