On television, there are several so-called nanny shows, where families with 'defiant' children get help from a disciplinarian nanny to raise their children. The tricks of her trade often lies in a gray zone of Swedish legislation. At preschools around the country, and the rest of the world I assume, it happens that rowdy children are put alone in a janitor's closet until the child is unable to protest anymore. A man was recently sentenced to day fine since he locked in his five-year-old daughter in her room, because she refused to stay there at bed time. The law is clear, isolation and locking other people up is illegal restraint. All this while the nanny shows are some of the most popular shows on the commercial channels. In one episode of one such show one of the boys in a family struck his dad on the leg, whereupon the nanny carried the weeping boy to his room, locked the door and didn't allow him to come out until after 20 minutes, when he completely gave up all the resistance and stopped crying. But is such behavior really okay? What are the children to learn from such punishment? What are the long term consequences of such an exercise of power?
Those who advocate isolation punishment of this kind usually claim that such methods are apparently working and that they make children obey. But do we want blindly obedient children? The American researcher Mark Roberts presented a study of 18 children who had a tendency to escape from the 'timeout chair' they were first placed on when they had been rowdy. The children were divided into two groups. Nine children got a spanking (yeah, psychology is a sick science at times) while the other nine children were locked in a wardrobe for a minute while blocking the door before the children were re-placed on the 'timeout chair'. The results showed that both methods were effective. The children stopped being rowdy. Fantastic, right?
So short-term it 'works', at least for the selfish parents that wants peace and quiet and control as fast as possible. But if we're to throw empathy out the window and only evaluate the desired effects, we also have to look at the long term effects. The advocates for such parenting usually add that there is no scientific evidence that punishments of this kind would harm children in the long term. Of course, as a forensic psychologist I've witnessed many examples of young people who described the trauma, shame and fear of being locked up. But it doesn't count, since it's not 'science'. It doesn't count, since it's only 'anecdotal'. And those therapists who testify that violations of this kind are very often brought up in sessions, are also dismissed.
But how would a scientific study to clarify this actually be conducted? Perhaps like the sadistic Dr. Roberts - randomly select a large group of young children and then periodically expose half of them to forced isolation during their upbringing. But who wants to take the ethical responsibility for such a study?
An equally important issue is what happens to us. What happens to the person who regularly exercises power and place a fellow human being, even a defenseless child, in powerlessness? I'm not saying that parenthood doesn't come without the aspect of power. We must protect our children from obvious dangers and intervene when children hurt other children. But power corrupts, so where is the limit? It's a slippery slope and the child is at risk of no longer being a human but an It, an object that we control to reach our desired outcome. Of course the false belief that children are incapable of reasoning plays a part. And the imprints and patterns that are engraved in us during childhood and upbringing are deep and often unconscious. Our actions and attitudes towards others and ourselves are largely shaped by those patterns. Patterns imprinted by others which we haven't really had a chance to say no to. If you've been strictly controlled as a child, you often find it hard to know what is good for yourself and others and what is not so good. You are governed by the rules, expectations and demands of others which were integrated and internalized to become your own voice and moral compass. Your true voice has been suppressed and suffocated. If you have authoritarian parents, you risk creating a too early and false identity and taking positions without really having explored them. These individuals can be very determined in their opinions and have a strong sense of self. Nevertheless, they have a weak identity and vulnerability because they have uncritically taken over values from parents or other authorities. They are close to their families but may have difficulty separating themselves from them and they often create superficial relationships.
How are you ever to learn how to reason by always being told what to do by an authoritarian figure? And how could punishment ever encourage reasoning? Children don't need authorities that control them. They need secure adults who are curious in what the child feels and experiences. Children need a respectful, warm, empathetic and considerate environment with adults they trust enough to ask questions and reason with.
And I don't want to see obedient children. The active ingredients in obedience are fear, guilt and shame. When the children obey our adults, they do it to avoid shame and guilt, or because they're afraid of us. You can of course choose to express it as having 'respect' for us, but it's not that kind of hierarchical respect I think the world is in dire need of. Obedience to higher authority is by no means a virtue unto itself.
What I want to see is cooperation between adults and children. I long for a world characterized by curiosity, where adults and children attempt to understand each other and are ready to find solutions that work for everyone. As the children grow and become more linguistically and cognitively advanced, children can take a great deal of responsibility for finding solutions that meet everyone's needs, if encouraged. Unlike obedience, there is no quick fix to achieve cooperation. The quick solutions for obedience are threat, punishment, bribery and shaming. Collaboration is something that occurs in a true relationship between adults and children. A long-term relationship where the adult guides and takes responsibility for the quality of the interaction. A relationship where the active ingredients are curiosity, respect (equal and bi-directional), empathy, honesty and at least a slight humor.
Most of all, I feel amazement, and sometimes a kind of despair, that so few reflect on what happens to us when we uncritically abuse our power against defenseless children. It's no longer just the children who are locked up. Also, we as adults risk being locked up, willingly. In a self-made arrest outside of the humane room. And in return we get a colder and less compassionate world. The only people that will benefit are warlords and politicians.
Source: Mark W.Roberts. Linda C.Hatzenbuehler. Arthur W.Bean. (1981). "The effects of differential attention and time out on child non compliance" Behavior Therapy Volume 12, Issue 1. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005789481801098