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Punishment vs. Understanding and Empathy

While visiting a primary school, the principal offered me a chance to help out in a small conflict. The principal, who I will call Mr. Elliot, told me that one boy had been accused of saying "f... off" to some other boys while playing ball. We went to meet the boys, who were waiting for him outside his office. Four of the boys were standing in a line facing one other boy. The one alone was the one accused of the "crime." I began by asking the accused, who I will call Ahman, how he was feeling. He said, "Nervous." I asked if he were afraid of getting in trouble. He said, "Yes." I asked what he was scared of exactly. He said of missing break and some other punishment like sanding wood or something. I told him I didn't really care what he was accused of saying. I was more concerned with how he was feeling right then and also when he said whatever he was accused of saying. I suggested maybe he was feeling frustrated when he said whatever he said. He said yes and explained why.

He said the other boys took the ball from him and they always pick on him. I asked if he felt deserving of punishment. He said no because he didn't say what they had accused him of. I said, "So you feel falsely accused?" He didn't understand this so I asked if he felt justified in what he did. He said yes. It seemed that even though he was feeling afraid, he was also feeling steadfast, perhaps even a little defiant. While he talked, his hands were touching the top of his head. I am not an expert at body language, but this suggests to me he felt a little regret or guilt. It also suggested he was doing a lot of thinking. Probably he was thinking about what happened, how he would defend himself and what his punishment might be. Mr. Elliot asked Ahman if he had said what the boys reported him saying. He said, "No, sir. I did not." The other boys, though, said that he did.

Mr. Elliot talked to Ahman a little about feeling frustrated and about different ways to handle frustration. Ahman volunteered that he also felt frustrated in school lately because his brother, who is a few years older, is also picking on him at school and at home. I could see that Mr. Elliot was genuinely concerned about this and I could tell that Ahman appreciated his empathy and understanding. I then asked Ahman how much he felt understood by us, from 0-10. He said around 9 or 10. I then addressed all five boys and said that Mr. Elliot and I were in a difficult position because it was impossible for us to know what the truth was since we weren't there. I explained, though, that Mr. Elliot puts a high value on honesty. I asked Ahman and the others if they also valued honesty. They all said yes. I said, "Good" and told them I was glad to hear that. They all seemed sincere enough when they answered me.

Then I looked over to the four boys and asked if they thought Ahman should be punished. One said yes, one said no. I said to the one who said yes, "Okay, so you think we should punish him. Should we shoot him then?" They all laughed. Then I asked them if they all wanted to be friends. They all said yes. I asked them how they felt when Ahman said whatever he had said. They didn't know how to answer. I then suggested that they might have felt offended or disrespected, but still they seemed to feel confused. Then I asked if they know why Mr. Elliot doesn't like swearing. They didn't seem to really know. I suggested it probably was because he thinks it is shows a lack of respect, and Mr. Elliot values respect very highly. Mr. Elliot confirmed this. He added that he wanted the school to be a place where people treated each other with respect and a place they could be proud of. I then asked Ahman how proud he felt of the school from 0-10. He said 9. I asked him to explain. He said things like, "People are honest here and the teachers treat me with respect most of the time." He said if someone finds money they will turn it in. I knew that Mr. Elliot was pleased to hear this. Again it sounded quite sincere. I credit Mr. Elliot with having created an environment which seemed to allow people to be emotionally honest.

By then everyone was feeling okay. Mr. Elliot said, "Thank you, boys, for coming to me. And thank you, Ahman, telling me honestly how you feel and why you feel frustrated." He then asked Ahman if he would like him to give Ahman's mom a call to talk about the brother picking on him. Ahman said, No thank you, sir, that isn't necessary."

Mr. Elliot then told the four boys they could go. Then he smiled caringly at Ahman and said, "You may go now, Ahman."

Mr. Elliot and I then discussed what had happened. I told Mr. Elliot that I was concerned about how some of the boys wanted Ahman to be punished. I was also concerned that the other boys had used Mr. Elliot in the sense that they wanted to hurt Ahman and they saw this as an opportunity to do this. This is one unfortunate, but very real, byproduct of using punishment. From what I know of Mr. Elliot, he is a person who does not enjoy hurting others. He thanked me in fact, for showing him another way of handling the conflict. It was clear to me that he felt much better with the outcome we achieved than if he would have punished Ahman without even knowing if he actually swore or not.

Looking back, I regret not giving the boys a chance to work things through a bit more on their own, while at the same time teaching them how to resolve future conflicts without involving a school authority. I also regret not exploring the four accusing boys' feelings and motives more. It might also have been good, had time permitted, to speak with them more individually, because there was a certain amount of peer pressure and pride involved. It would be unlikely the four boys would have admitted their true motives with Ahman standing there listening, if indeed their motives were partially hurtful. It would also have been interesting to see if any of the four boys thought they were in part responsible for provoking Ahman. I also regret not asking the boys and Mr. Elliot how a similar conflict would have been handled had I not been there that day, and how everyone felt under the normal procedures. My guess is that there are definitely ways to teach young people the values of honesty and respect, and the skills of emotional literacy and verbal problem solving, while also modeling the values of empathy and understanding.

I feel satisfied that on this occasion, Mr. Elliot and I came one step closer to this ideal.

S. Hein
South Africa
October, 2002