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On the punishment of children

I sit in my teacher cubicle throwing crumpled bits of paper over the cubicle wall. On the other side of the wall is a Chinese boy who has been punished for not doing his homework. He is about twelve. I cannot see him. He has to sit there at that desk and finish his work and do a few hundred lines, highly unlikely to be inspired by the Bart Simpson versions. Each time I throw a screw of paper over, he tosses it back, sometimes with a muffled titter. This clandestine game of tennis is played for several minutes without the other teachers’ knowledge. Finally, I reach into my drawer and toss over a sweet. There is a crinkling sound and a few seconds later the empty wrapper is thrown back and lands on the keyboard of this laptop on which I am writing.

Bad move to punish kids and put them in reach of me. That boy, English name Beaver (the school makes it compulsory for them to have English names and some dream up odd ones), thinks I am the best thing since sliced bread or bubblegum and we seem to be buddies for life. So much for detention, “hard lines” and extra homework. Beaver often unfortunately “visits” our office with a glum look on his face for a lecture and punishment, but I get little gifts of sweets, notes and frogs etc crafted out of paper from him. Most Chinese students’ origami is superb. One of his frogs can actually hop a bit. If you push the head down and let go it flips forward a few centimetres. Cool. Beaver can be a bit of a nuisance as he loves the attention from me which I cannot always give. Something is missing at home, I muse.

As with most children, the punishments Beaver gets don’t seem to work. They subdue children; they do not usually motivate them, except briefly, to avoid pain or another undesirable outcome. The punishments seem to ensure the children are not inspired by the actual reward of acquiring knowledge and skills. Beaver just shows less and less interest in learning English. Except when he is in my class which is only once a week. Ahem. (Licks finger, places it on own shoulder and makes hot, hissing sound.) Beaver gets the Chinese English teachers every day.

Beaver reminds me of me. When I was a boy I can’t think of a single good reason for visiting a school headmaster’s office. As far as memory serves, it was always because I was in trouble, often with a small band of fellow hoodlums. Like Beaver, the punishments and scoldings meted out just made me like the school subjects less and less. I associated the subjects with the punishments I received: pain, misery and boredom. And, clearly, it does not have to be like that.

I get the impression that if Beaver were left up to me he would probably flourish. It’s a guy thing. The rest of the English teachers in my school (all Chinese) are all women and I know many of them mean well.

Don’t get me wrong. I have had pupils who are really naughty and cheeky, and, at the time of the misdemeanours repeated ad nauseam, I would love to give them a solid, teeth-rattling clout though many readers know I am opposed to corporal punishment in schools. It is just a slightly delicious thought passing through my enraged mind at the time but I know it is wrong.

In my experience*, both as a learner and an educator, one has to be very careful when doling out punishments to children at school. Most do not really work. Pain and humiliation create fear and resentment, not a greater desire to learn. The same seems to apply to punishments that require tediousness and drudgery, like writing out lines or doing light labour around the school. I welcome debate and comment.

I liken my teaching to the security on say, a state president. I have met these security experts in China and also in SA (such as ex-military SADNF/SADF and the Rhodesian Infantry) who have been to places like Iraq on security missions. They say if the situation requires pulling out guns and using them then the security has not done their homework properly on the protection assignment. They have started to lose control if they have to use force. No enemy should have got that close. This reminds me of the behaviour of children and punishment.

If a child is too naughty in class I first look to see if I have done my homework properly. Has the lesson been interesting enough thus far? Does the child relate to me and the material in a constructive manner? Is she being allowed to express her creativity? To be quite frank, if the lesson is truly interesting enough and they are allowed to participate in “creative activities” that simulate sheer games and yet still teach the required lesson outcome, the chances of a child acting up or becoming bored and restless enough to be naughty becomes less and less. Of course this is not a hard and fast rule and is always easier said than done.

Let’s look at what punishment does: it teaches fear and resentment, humiliation and even an abhorrence for the subject taught. Beaver is a glum lad as are many of the others when on detention in the dungeon teachers’ office. They stand there and get scolded until some cry. In front of adults. With huge resignation they sit down and do all the homework in the dungeon and perhaps a page of lines, “I shalt not … ”.I shalt not. Punishment — in the traditional sense as described above — closes up a child, shuts off their creativity. This is entrenched more and more as they approach adulthood. They have focused more on what not to do and the humiliation and fear associated with tasks rather than the thrill of the creative chase of learning and acquiring skills. I am an ambitious writer and, more importantly, have a passion for writing. A life without passion is not worth living and inappropriate punishment of children (in my book that sums up most punishments) knocks the passion out of them. Other than the memoir Cracking China, coming out soon, I have had one other book published, written several more, am working on two others, and have other book projects in mind about which I make notes from time to time. Usually I blog regularly and experiment with what blogs can be about. But I am forty-six years old now and a late starter, perhaps. My thirties were mostly fizzles and splutters in terms of creativity. This is because of the judgmental side of my lebenswelt (my being in the world, a phenomenological term broader than mere “thinking”, which has too cerebral a connotation) stifled my creativity. That judgmental side was nurtured by a school life of punishments — the dangers of which I by now have hopefully defined — penalties which taught me to judge myself far too critically.

This destructive self-criticism was reinforced by a two-year military career of fear of punishment, which further strengthened the cold voice in my body-mind: “your creative ideas are no good”. I slowly but surely learned not to listen to that voice. In fact, heck, I found even learning not to make paragraphs when involved in a creative splurge of writing was freeing. The critical side of the mind-body is involved in deciding when to end and start a paragraph. The editing process comes later.

Going back to the treatment of children. My points on punishment hardly means that there is not a place for firmness. I admit I have sent children out of my classroom if they are misbehaving too much. They have to stand next to the door for a five-minute cool-off. This is so I can get a class of forty children settled down again, which Mr Mischief got unsettled. Of course, here in China with its population problem, forty primary school students to a class are far from ideal. A maximum of fifteen is wonderful and I have taught groups half that size.

Children are deeply creative and spontaneous — if left largely unpunished as outlined above — so I like to tap into that (and thus keep on nurturing my own creativity and spontaneity).

The above argument needs to be concretised with an example. Here is a specific activity of mine which illustrates keeping children stimulated instead of “acting up”, perhaps due to boredom. This is one of my edutainment games, developed from other versions, to make concrete my way of teaching children in an environment which honours their right to a safe, nurturing, humiliation- and fear-free teaching environment. After the activity we do something from the textbook, which they are then perfectly keen to do. It’s a fair transaction. You give me something, I give you something. Incidentally, I won a prize which covers a dinner for two and a bottle of wine at a smart Italian restaurant near where we live for this kind of activity. The other week I entered a private school’s competition here in Shanghai for creative ideas and activities to use when teaching children English. Winning the prize was way cool, because I can treat the missus, my Chookie, to a special dinner over the Christmas period for free._________________________________________________________________Here’s one of my activities: Write the names of various objects on pieces of paper with child’s name and then the name of the object again. These could be vocabulary items the children are currently learning.

For example: Balloon — Angela — balloon. Scissors — Peter — scissors.

Tear off the name of first object and a child comes up, looks at it and shoves it away into a pocket. Ensure the child knows the name of the object.

Now you have a sheet of paper with each child’s name and the name of the object he has so that you don’t forget who has got what. They also can forget or cheat.

Each child then guesses who has what object. Each child has a turn to ask any child one question.

For example: “Mary, do you have the tablecloth?”

Mary: “No I don’t” or “Yes I do”.

If the child guesses correctly, he gives you the piece of paper and the child who guessed correctly gets a star or point.

Believe you me after a few rounds the kids are really concentrating, trying to remember who has got what! (“Ummm … did Jack ask Tracy if she has the yo-yo … mmmm … oboy!”)

You can allow the kids to have a sheet of paper and a pen and they can write down who hasn’t got what and who has got what. This is optional and depends on the level of the class.

The activity teaches them concentration, memory retention, asking questions correctly and improves vocabulary.

You should definitely beforehand write down a list of all items on the board so they can see what the items are. Go through with them what the items are before the game. Have pictures or samples of the vocabulary items under review. Then explain to the children: “I am going to give you each a small piece of paper with one of these things on it. (Point to the board.) Do NOT tell your friends. Then each of you gets a chance to guess what item your friend has. You carry on guessing until all the items are out.”

Important rule: No child can be asked twice in a row what his item is. You will see why; it becomes a little too easy to guess what he or she has.

Once you have handed out all the items, say, for example, to the child Mary, “Mary, ask anyone do you have the glue or the scissors.”

Correct sentence patterns and pronunciation is required.______________________________________________________________

* In my twenty-year career I have taught and trained sales managers, taught staff sales skills, motivation and confidence-building and other empowerment skills. But most of my life has been teaching primary school children how to realise their own potential and for the past five years I have taught Chinese students English as foreign language. I simply love teaching children and seem to have the same mindset. If asked the famous motivational question, “If time and money were not an issue, in other words you had plenty of both, what would you spend your life doing?” My answer? I would still teach children and write. So, though currently a “country-less” ex-pat, I am indeed a blessed person.


  • Rod MacKenzie

    CRACKING CHINA was previously the title of this blog. That title was used as the name for Rod MacKenzie's second book, Cracking China: a memoir of our first three years in China. From a review in the Johannesburg Star: " Mackenzie's writing is shot through with humour and there are many laugh-out-loud scenes". Cracking China is available as an eBook on Amazon Kindle or get a hard copy from His previous book is a collection of poetry,Gathering Light. A born and bred South African, Rod now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, after a number of years working in southern mainland China and a stint in England. Under the editorship of David Bullard and Michael Trapido he had a column called "The Mocking Truth" on NewsTime until the newszine folded. He has a Master's Degree in Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. if you are a big, BIG publisher you should ask to see one of his many manuscript novels. Follow Rod on Twitter @