Desert Part 2: Punishment

November 26, 2008

No concept has been at the centre of more heated debate in education than punishment, and no concept has been more undermined by the collapse of ethical thinking. Almost every aspect of punishment has been challenged, dismissed or redefined at one time. It is obvious to children, and to most parents, that a punishment is a painful, unpleasant or undesired experience, given to somebody as a result of a judgement of what they deserve in return for their poor conduct. This is not obvious to educationalists, human rights lawyers, educational consultants or psychologists. For some this is the rejection of the very concept of desert; for others it is simply a lack of intestinal fortitude with regard to the (often unpleasant) act of punishing. It is hoped that difficult judgements and personal responsibility can be avoided. Of course, punishment, like desert and sin, is an indispensable moral concept. If an action is not deserving of punishment it is in no way wrong. Even without explicitly referring to morality it is still the case that if a rule can be broken without the possibility of a penalty, it is no longer a rule. Punishments define moral boundaries, without them we are utterly lost and so we can never have a coherent morality without punishment.

Attempts to challenge a concept as indispensable as punishment often turn out to be little more than word games. For this reason we should consider the correct understanding of the word:

The name `punishment’ means `requital` or ‘return,’ deriving from an Indo-European root meaning `exchange’ and therefore not very remote semantically from the term `retribution` which means ‘giving back’… It is common to refer to a `retributive theory of punishment’ a paradoxically redundant expression that would seem to mean a `penal theory of penalty’… Punishment is best understood as a judgement enacted on the person, property or liberty of the condemned party … it is an act of moral discrimination that pronounces upon a preceding act or existing state of affairs to establish a new public context. A rational act of condemnation it is neither irrational like impulsive revenge, nor inactive, like reflective disapproval, but an `expressive act’ or `communication’. It is not a private act, but an authorised act undertaken in the defence of the order of society, an act of social definition.

O’Donovan (2005)

Sometimes it is claimed that punishment can be replaced with “positive methods”, i.e. encouragement and rewards. While rewards for complying can motivate, withdrawal of rewards still constitutes a punishment. Indeed, many, perhaps most, punishments could be described as a withdrawal of some comfort or convenience. Inevitably punishment is still occurring under systems of “positive” behaviour management but in a more costly and impractical way.

Another game that is played with the word “punishment” is simply to implicitly, or explicitly, redefine it in ways that make it automatically an aggressive, or immoral act. This has already happened to the synonym “retribution” to the extent where it is now widely seen to mean “revenge” or “retaliation” rather than a requital. Examples of this are very common when one looks at the work of the behaviour management industry. It is common place to take concepts that are part and parcel of punishment and then suggest they are actually an alternative to the cruelties of punishment:

Here, an “expert”  claims that a consequence is different from a punishment:

Consequences are a respectful, fair, democratic response to misbehaviour. Unlike punishments they don’t ridicule, they don’t embarrass, they don’t humiliate and they aren’t unfair… Consequences are different because they focus on the behaviour being displayed, not on the child. All too often teachers slip into labeling young people because of their behaviour and this has the effect of making punishments seem like personal attacks.

Here another “expert” claims that discipline is an alternative to punishment:

Many parents think that punishing a child will teach him or her discipline, but this is not the case. Punishment and discipline are two very distinct concepts and they should not be used interchangeably as they so often are… Discipline helps children realise what has gone wrong, that they have become out of control and that they need to regain control before an activity can continue. This is done in a positive and consistent manner so that children can see the pattern of what is appropriate behaviour and what is inappropriate behaviour … Discipline does not seek to simply call out children’s faults or misgivings (which very often is the basis of punishment), and instead uses praise for appropriate behaviour to gain results. Discipline is also never physical (while punishment very well may include swatting or smacking), sarcastic, belittling or disrespectful…Ignoring misbehaviour and encouraging positive alternatives, putting a child in open-ended time out to allow him or her to regain their self-control, discussing inappropriate actions and how to make up for them, using sticker and star charts to map good behaviour and giving a child two positive options for future actions are all methods of discipline that help re-direct children to more appropriate behaviours.

Both writers allow for penalties to be enacted, or rewards to be foregone, but both claim that these are not the same as punishments. Inevitably there is no clear definition of what punishment is, just the repeated implication that it must be humiliating, painful and unfair. One assumes that this allows the writers to retain their own right to punish, but to condemn others for the self-same act.

A less condescending variation on this is those schools who claim that their discipline system is based on choice and consequences. It is hoped that by emphasising choice children will see sanctions as something they can avoid rather than a vindictive act on the part of teachers. I would tend towards the view that this is a good thing to try and communicate, although my experience of such schools is that students continue to see those sanctions as, at best, punishments or, at worst, victimisation. However, it seems to be an utter misunderstanding of what a punishment is to suggest that calling a sanction a punishment makes it any less of a matter of choice. We choose what we deserve, just as surely as we choose a consequence given without an explicit concept of desert. Punishment, far from removing the notion of choice, enhances it by placing it entirely within the moral arena, the ultimate arena for personal choice and responsibility. A punishment is a choice and a consequence, and it is the type of choice and consequence children are most likely to be familiar with.

Another, more academically respectable, way to redefine punishment is that used by behaviourists. As with rewards, they wish to remove the element of moral desert from the concept and classify it only by its effect on behaviour, so for instance Nuttin et al (1968) describes punishment as “a … negatively valued event contingent on an action or series of actions”. By this redefinition, anything that is worth avoiding which may result from your actions is a punishment. This may seem plausible, due to the fact that there are similar colloquial usages of the word (one might refer to a boxer taking “punishment” in the ring) but when applied in this context it leaves us (as behaviourism always does) with a moral vacuum where concepts have lost their purpose. Without desert punishments are essentially purposeless. The only way around this is, of course, if new purposes are contrived.

We shall consider these next time.


O’Donovan, Oliver, The Ways of Judgement, Eerdmans, 2005

Nuttin, Joseph and Greenwald, Anthony G. Reward and Punishment in Human Learning, Academic press, 1968



  1. It seems obvious that my education is somewhat lacking. Can someone please explain what ‘desert’ is supposed to mean? To me ii either means someone leaving without permission as in a soldier deserting or a large expanse of sand.

  2. de·sert 2 (d-zûrt)
    1. Something that is deserved or merited, especially a punishment. Often used in the plural: They got their just deserts when the scheme was finally uncovered.
    2. The state or fact of deserving reward or punishment.

  3. I think a major clue lies in – ‘Consequences are a respectful, fair, democratic response to misbehaviour.’

    Who decides that misbehaviour is misbehaviour? Underlying all this muddled thinking is a reluctance to state overtly that adults should not judge children’s behaviour in any way. Children are free spirits who should remain unfettered by duty, obligation or responsibility for as long as possible. Nuttin etc wrote this too long ago to have watched any “Nanny” type shows, but open-ended time-out has got to be one of the worst ideas ever.

    Kids like certainty, predictability and reliability. Vagueness and apparent inconsistency are anathema to teaching small ones about behaviour or anything else. Never underestimate the literal-mindedness of <8s to entirely misconstrue the point of a discussion or an activity. Simplicity, repetition and routine are the only way.

    Democratic ? Who needs to be democratic about making beds or taking out the rubbish? You didn’t do it when you were told, so – no discussion, no agenda, no committee meeting. No pocket money (or whatever).

    Respectful is the killer though. Careful reading tells us that this ‘democratic and respectful’ approach is required of adults only. Any reciprocity would be partial and strictly voluntary – (I’m just guessing by the date of publication.)

    Adults are entitled to the respect of children and minors unless they demonstrate that they are unworthy of such respect. No bowed head, no forelock tugging is needed. Just speech and behaviour that acknowledges that the adult has a full place in society. Minors have their special place but it is not the same and it is certainly not superior.

    Back to deserts. The real mystery is why people, professionals no less, think we should avoid concepts like deserving punishment when dealing with school children. Leave aside what punishment for which offence for the moment. Far and away the most judgemental group we’ll ever meet would have to be adolescents. Reasonableness and other wishy washy notions are mostly within the province of maturity and experience.

    Modern educators have the benefit of experimental psychology and neurology not available to Nuttin and friends. Surprise, surprise, puberty brings a reduction of a child’s ability to judge others’ emotions and reactions, not an increase. So we should be alert to the need to impose external rules and disciplines to make the transition to self-discipline smoother. Rules apply to everyone. Everyone must learn them. The immature, the stubborn, or thoughtless, or dimwitted, and the downright nasty may need to learn the hard way. The hard way should be obvious, predictable and straightforward to implement.

  4. Punishment makes sense to me. I have found that it works with my own children and in my own classes (I teach modern languages). However, my administrators claim that punishment does not work in our school….it is not working, evidenced by the fact that office referrals increase every year rather than decrease. And so we are now using PBS (Positive Behavior Support). I hope it works…we have spent a great deal of time and money in training and implementation.

  5. I love the way that the bleeding hearts can use words like “punishment”, “discipline”, “smacking”, beating” and “violence” as synonyms.
    If punishment isn’t working in your school Amy P, it’s either not being applied consistently or it isn’t a consequence that any child fears.

  6. What is the flip side of the ongoing trend towards “no punishment”? Assault, by a 13 year old child. Denied entry due to poor behaviour from somewhere he wanted to be, he felt “empowered” to push me after I barred his entry.

    What about saying no? Students feel free to say that to any request they do not wish to follow. We can apply “reasonable force”. Yet, any teachers here, would you rely on the unswerving support of your SMT throughout? Not I, especially if an incompetent county council become involved, eager to sacrifice a teacher on the altar of the DfCES and possible bad publicity.

    I stood up for discipline and order in schools, and got shoved, shouted at and heckled by a group of 13 year old students. This is the outcome of the ongoing trend. While the rewards and encouragement may work for nice, reasonably well behaved middle class students, for the rest of those students needing protection from the unpleasant minority in schools, the “experts” have ruined school.

    Yes, I have formed my solicitor and my Union Rep. I’m no fool.

  7. Wearyteacher, I sympathise completely. Only last week, I received a threat from a year 8 pupil –


    and so far, all that’s happened is that he’s been given a detention and his parents called in. I’ve also been pushed over, called a racist, had kids try to break down my classroom door and then blame me for injuries they incurred as a result.

    How much of this are we supposed to take?

    These kids respond to nothing – rewards mean nothing to them, and they know only too well that we can do nothing to them that they care about.

  8. Thanks for the support Caz.

    My head is being supportive, and I am not pushing for any drastic action as the government has prevented any from being taken.

    Not wishing to sound like 1950’s man, but in ye olde days, I have been told, the child would have been dragged up the head, “disciplined” and expelled.



  9. My head is being supportive, and I am not pushing for any drastic action as the government has prevented any from being taken.


    A lot of SMTs claim their hands are tied when they are not. The DCSF have stopped setting targets to reduce permanent exclusions, so the problem is usually at the LEA or SMT level.

  10. so the problem is usually at the LEA or SMT level.

    Exactly. Especially when there are LEAs that impose ridiculous fines on schools that permanently exclude pupils.

    My school is increasingly adopting a “better the devil you know” approach – or at least, that’s how it seems to me – in the hope that there is more chance of dealing effectively with a “known quantity” rather than taking the risk of getting someone worse in return for the excluded pupil.

    I’m not pushing for anything drastic, but a detention and having the boys removed from my class until Christmas doesn’t fit “the crime” either.

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