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Some Thoughts on Punishment

Have had a few thoughts on punishment recently that I thought I would share....

It started a while ago when I heard a mini debate on the radio about smacking children. Usual sort of arguments but two things stood out for me, which, as ever, have direct analogies with using punishment with horses.

i) people who advocate using punishment often use the argument that it's ok if you don't use it in a fit of emotion/anger. So you use it calmly and in well-defined moments with a clear intent of reducing the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring in the future. Now obviously I would prefer to see punishment used well than badly and so a certain amount of fore-thought is a good thing. But I also find planning to use punishment, eg smacking children, somewhat chilling. I feel a lot more sympathetic towards someone who lashes out because she has reached the end of her tether, is tired, emotionally-drained etc. If you are in the frame of mind where you are calm and able to train effectively then why not use some other form of training? I am pretty ashamed of myself when I resort to yelling at my boys or dog (luckily for him, Jak is a safe distance from me so doesn't tend to see me when things get bad!) and I normally manage to shock myself into feeling sufficiently guilty to apologise and snap out of it. But it is a sign that I am at rock bottom. But I can't imagine planning to parent like that on a good day - it doesn't work and it's such hard work - fire-fighting everything, rather than setting up situations that can be dealt with positively. And this brings me on to:

ii) punishment works if it is applied with good timing and saliency. Yet despite many people advocating its use (and -R is creeping in here too), I can only think of one trainer I've seen who was really good at it. I've mentioned on here before, watching a training lecture-demo with Arthur Kottas and his timing was absolutely exquisite. He used a level of pressure I disliked intensely but nonetheless, he was a true master of what he was doing and the horse was able to learn quickly how to avoid the pressure. A real contrast with the high profile natural horsemanship trainers whose timing is appalling in comparison. If it is so rare for professionals to be able to use punishment well then isn't it a tad worrying that novices are encouraged to use it? And that's assuming that all the reasons for the "bad behaviour" have been fully addressed first, hmmm, unusual to say the least....

iii) and something else that I now find myself thinking about (and this is getting towards a discussion of the whole criminal justice system - hmmm, I think I'll stop here!), if we use punishment then is it with the intention of reducing the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring or (as I think is more common, albeit inadvertently) as retribution for some misdemeanour? People are always so concerned that the culprit of whatever behaviour "should not be allowed to get away with it". Punishment (contingent or not....) is often excused on the basis of "I only had to hit him once and he never did it again". But so often the behaviour would not necessarily have reoccurred anyhow - children often do things as a one-off and then move on, a horse may have behaved in such a way due to some freak combination of factors. I confess to be a very lazy trainer - waiting and seeing what happens, rather than training anything (even positively), is so often an effective route to take! Why do we always feel the need for retribution, even if it is not likely to be useful as a punisher? I find this particularly chilling in the case of young children - often the adult in a child-adult confrontation is somehow less mature. Yet our egos cannot allow us to feel as though someone, be it human or animal, has "got one over us". And that's probably because it was how we were parented and that was how our parents were parented..... We need to break that cycle.....

One thing I've noticed, and wish I could somehow teach my children/dog, the degree of misdemeanour is much more dependent on how much sleep I got last night or how securely I cling to my hang-ups than how much damage etc was actually caused. The best alternative to punishment I've found so far is not some alternative training but letting go of my hang-ups and worries about "what might happen". It enables me to appear more permissive but actually I find that it is just the equivalent of ignoring the behaviours you don't like and they tend to just peter out.

One final thought about the radio program I listened to, and this comes back to the discussion we had on language not long ago, the advocate for smacking used the word "smacking". The opponent arguing against smacking used the word "hitting". I like little distinctions like that which just say it all....

Copyright Catherine Bell 2012