Punishment to fit the crime

My parents introduced me to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan when I was young and one of my favorite numbers from The Mikado was a song entitled “To let the punishment fit the crime.” I found the song very amusing especially when modernized by various productions. The idea is that when someone does something that’s wrong (or even just annoying), that person should be made to do something that is the opposite, in order to teach them a lesson.

This idea was used by a father and reported in a Reddit post.

“So my son confessed to stealing gum from the store. He’s 5. When I had my back turned he apparently just picked it up and walked out. I found this out after he was chewing it and offered me a piece (because 5yo logic). So I asked him if he paid for it and he told me no. I told him how proud I was for him telling me the truth, but disappointed that he had to resort to stealing. So how to punish this? I want him to understand real world consequences [of] theft, but not through just being grounded or taking something away.”

dad talking to little boy
(c) Crazedo.com

One of the difficulties in taking little boys to the store is their tendency to touch everything. Handling objects is how they interact with their world and how they learn, but the result is that objects get broken or, in the case discussed here, find their way into the young man’s pocket unpaid for. He wasn’t stealing; in fact, a child of this age probably doesn’t actually understand the concept of property. He offered a piece of gum to his father so he was not trying to hide what he did. At some level, he did know it wasn’t right, but he didn’t grasp the concept of why taking a pack of gum was so wrong.

The father’s response was totally right. Trying to get the point of stealing across to a young child is difficult, so the father simply pointed out that the gum cost money and his son would have to earn the money to pay for the gum. Taking something without permission or without paying is stealing and is not to be tolerated. The father fit the punishment to the crime and the lesson was learned.

Years ago, when I taught at a boy’s school, if a boy was late to evening study hall, I made him stay afterwards for two times the number of minutes he was originally late. My point was that you were enjoying your time when you should have been here, so now you will pay that back by staying in study hall while everyone else is out playing.

The standard punishment at the time was to give the boys demerits, which they might have to serve on the weekend. The problem with that? The punishment was not directly connected to the crime, and so far removed from the original transgression that the student might not remember why he got the demerits.

When I was scheduled to proctor study hall, it was not uncommon for one boy to say to another, I have to run, Mrs. James is proctoring study hall tonight and if I’m late, I’ll have to stay afterwards. If a boy was late to my study hall, he almost always came bearing a note from a teacher describing the legitimate reason that the boy was delayed. The students knew that I would consistently enforce the start time of study hall and that the punishment was immediate and somewhat irritating. Let’s face it, if a boy was two minutes late, he only had to stay four minutes afterwards, but it was the principle of the thing.

The point of any punishment is that it only works if it is immediate, or as immediate as can be arranged, and that you are consistent in enforcing the rule. The young man in the story had never taken anything before, at least as far as his father knew, but that was not the point. He had stolen and he should have known better, so his father made him earn the money back. The father did not describe the most important part of this lesson – making restitution. Facing the storeowner with the money in hand may well be the most important part of the whole experience.

Is this going to be embarrassing for the parent? It shouldn’t be, but some parents will simply just lecture the child because such small offenses are not worth much money. However, if that is all that happens, the child is likely to take items again because a lecture is totally worth the price of a pack of gum. The point is that children need to learn what the cost is to the other person because one day, someone will take something from them and then they will be furious.

The punishment has to fit the crime. If the crime is theft, the item must be returned and the child should repay if the item is damaged. If money is needed to make compensation, the child must earn that money himself. If the crime is vandalism, the child will clean up and pay for repairs. If the crime is bullying, the child will apologize and offer to include the victim in some playtime. All of these restitutions will take place under supervision.

The point is that children need to learn that their behavior has consequences. If they do something right, you need to point that out and praise or thank them for their behavior. If they do something wrong, they need to apologize and make it right if possible. Most importantly, children need to learn that every action they make affects someone else and they need to pay attention to others.

Yes, boys are impulsive and often do not realize the effect of their actions. That is what parents are for, our job is to help our sons learn those lessons. It is also our job to help our sons recognize when something they have done has positive consequences, as boys may not notice those effects either. Respond to your son’s behavior and he will know you are paying attention – to him, that means he knows you love him.