Why punishments suck

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I was helping my son and daughter (ages 6 and 8) pack their lunches for the next day, while eating a cookie. My son said, “Why don’t I get a cookie?” so I put one in a bag and handed it to him.


“You can have it with your lunch,” I said.


He was in his underwear, probably his favorite outfit, his body short and round and soft. As he took the cookie, he had a suspicious grin, the one he gives when getting away with something, and it was then that I remembered his punishment.


My 8-year-old son was not allowed to eat desserts for one week. This was the punishment he picked for unbuckling in the van while it was in motion, running to the front seat, and farting on me (No paternity test needed. He’s mine).


I gave him three options for his punishment.


  1. Lose screens for a week.
  2. Go to bed early for a week.
  3. No desserts for a week.


Unfortunately he picked the desserts. Here is the problem with this punishment. I like cookies, and cake, and candy. Mel does, too. My son seems to think everything should be equal. If I get to eat candy, he should get to eat candy. If I get to play with a screen, he should get to play with a screen.


However, this is not the way life works. The second he goes to bed, I shove sweets in my mouth: ice cream, Oreos, gummy worms. I have stashes of candy he knows nothing about. This is all in the name of good health. I want Tristan to be healthier than me. I want him to be fit and sexy and live a long life. I have a lot of control over him right now, and it seems a lot easier to tell him “no” to sugar than it is for me to tell myself “no.”


But sometimes, when I am caught in the act of eating a sweet, and Tristan looks up at me with hurtful wet eyes that seem to say, “Why don’t I get one?” I crack. I give in. I feel guilty, and so I give him a cookie and say, “Don’t tell your mother.” But of course he does tell his mother, and then I get in trouble for breaking the rule (desserts only after lunch or dinner). This is why I am an inconsistent parent who probably, in some way, is turning my children into obese selfish turds, or perhaps drug dealers.


His soft sad, “picked on” face is one of Tristan’s real powers, and I knew, that during the course of Tristan being grounded from desserts for one week, I would get wrapped up in his hypnotic stare, and accidently give him a treat because the only way for me to really enforce this punishment is for me to not eat sweets, which wasn’t going to happen.


“Hold on!” I said. “Give me that cookie. You’re grounded.”


Tristan sagged his shoulders. He was in the living room, about to add the cookie to the lunch box in his backpack. Then he turned and looked at me with sad, puppy dog eyes. “But you got a cookie.”


As he looked at me, my heart sank a little. This is when parenting is so difficult. I want Tristan to grow up and be a great person. The kind of person who can follow the rules. But the problem is, that takes punishments, and I don’t really like punishing him.


There are a few reasons for this. I don’t like being mean, and I don’t like laying down the law. I’m more of a “lets talk about this” kind of dad, but that doesn’t always get through to an 8-year-old. There’s also the fact that I’m a little lazy and a little distracted with work and raising a family of five, so I forget about a lot of things. I tend to give him a punishment that is supposed to run a full week, but wind up forgetting about it around day two. And the really scary part of it all is that Tristan knows this. He knows that if he just waits it out a bit, doesn’t say anything, keeps his head down, he has a 60% chance of me forgetting about his punishment. And I don’t know what to make of that. I assume it’s just human nature. I did the same thing when I was a boy.


But part of me wants him to be better than that. I want him to face up to his problems. To realize that he did wrong, make amends on his own power. But he doesn’t work that way, and so we always end up in this silent game, where I try not to forget his punishment, and Tristan says nothing hoping that I will do just that.


And so, when Tristan realized that I had, at the last moment, remembered that he shouldn’t have a cookie, he turned and pulled out the big guns, giving me his sad “picked on” face.


“It’s just unfair,” he said.


He hid the cookie behind his back. I walked over and crouched down next to him. I put my hand out and said, “It isn’t unfair, Tristan. It’s just life. You have to face up to when you do wrong. And you know what you did in the van was wrong. Really wrong. And it was disrespectful.”


“I’ll never do it again,” he said. “I learned my lesson.”


“Dude,” I said. “I wish I could believe that. But that’s not the way it works. We agreed on a punishment and you need to see it through. And I know that I’m not the best at helping you see it through. I often forget to keep the punishment going. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t face up to it.”


I went on, telling him about how, sometimes, the best thing you can do is just accept it. Do what you have to do, and move on. And in this situation, that would be the easiest thing to do.


Tristan thought about what I had to say. I know that he didn’t like it, and I don’t know if he really understood, but what I do know is that he did something really brave. Something that I hadn’t seen him do yet. He didn’t throw a fit. He didn’t run away with the cookie or cry. He handed it to me. Then he zipped up his bag and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.





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  • Eric Kruse

    Nice article. I had to laugh at your comment about doling out punishment and then forgetting about it. My mother was the same way, and my siblings and I figured it out pretty quick (kids are diabolically quick to pick up on these kinds of things). We’d get grounded and simply wait a day – or sometimes even a few hours – and as we were opening the door to leave, casually shout out, “Mom, I’m going to so-and-so’s. See ya!” Her ability to remember the punishment usually related directly to how pissed she was at us in the first place. If we got busted, we usually took it in good grace and trudged back to our rooms conceding the battle – but not the war – to my mom. Looking back, my mom, who was very young when she became a mom, was learning to parent on the fly. Hopefully, if I have children of my own, I’ll do even half as well as she did.

    Thanks for the blog.

    Eric Kruse