Moral Character or Punishment?


I have been having a week where everything points towards the concept of reward and punishment when it comes to children and whether it is a good or bad thing. I am, of course, going to come at this from a character perspective and what reward and punishment actually means within this context. Character, and developing good character traits in children, implies a certain moralistic tone, backed up by an Aristotelian approach to create “human excellence;” but how do you make an excellent human without reward and punishment?

The concept of reward and punishment as being a bad way to cultivate good moral backbone, positive behaviour, and wellbeing is not a new thing. In fact, according to Aristotle, to develop good moral character, you have to develop it, slowly and effectively…. a bit like developing a photo in the darkroom, you start with a concept, create and develop the negative, print the image onto paper, seeing it magically appear in a bath of chemicals. Not that I want you to put your children in a bath of chemicals!! When good character is developed this can lead to ‘practical wisdom,’ or phronesis, the ultimate, overarching character trait. Essentially phronesis should be the aim of the individual and society - the ability to apply good judgement to our day-to-day lives in any situation, good and bad.

In education reward and punishment has been a common tool to shape and “inspire” good behaviour in pupils - not more-so than in the Victorian era, where bad behaviour was wrapped up in sin, therefore leading to some pretty harsh punishment. Character was very tied up in religion. There were sparks of light amongst the Dickension grimness of Victorian education - people such as Robert Owen, who, in 1816 (just pre-Victorian times), established a school in Scotland called “The Institute for the Formation of Character.” Owen was an athiest, a social theorist, and educational pioneer, who’s dream was to help people ‘live the good life,’ and his school was punishment-free, self reflection and discussion heavy, and ultimately reflective of contemporary behavioural psychologist discourse, where children are not born good or bad, but are impacted by events in their early years. Owen believed education should be about the formation of character for wider benefit of society - similar to the current desire for more character education in schools today.

There has to be boundaries in place, in community, in the family, in school, but pushing or breaking of these boundaries should not be punished in the traditional sense of punishment (thankfully corporal punishment has been banned, but even things like detention, with no clear explanation, discussion, or self reflection, is not effective as a punishment). If we really want children to grow into flourishing, happy, healthy member of society, we need to give them the space to self reflect and understand at a deeper level the rights and wrongs and consequences of certain bad behaviours, just like Robert Owen did with his school. This means bringing the language of character back into our schools and family homes, we need to role model good choices - especially in difficult times, and we need to trust children that they will create good habits, without us constantly hovering to ensure good behaviour. 

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Elizabeth Wright

Elizabeth Wright

Inspirational Speaker, co-founder of character programme RWS Resilience Wellbeing Success

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