Doug Taylor and Rabbi Morton Moskowitz

"If you don't stop that, I'll paddle you so hard you won't be able to sit down for a week!"
The kids didn't obey, but their mother's angry voice certainly got the attention of everyone on our ferry's forward upper deck. Seated several rows over, I turned back to my friend, the King of Rational Thought, while an afternoon deluge pounded out a reminder of western Washington's rainy reputation.
"Hmm," I said, half to myself. "Reminds me of dealing with my own kids."
"Really?" he replied with a disarming smiling. "Do you handle your children that way?"
I glanced at the mother, still struggling to corral her herd of wild ponies, and replied, "Well, I try not to get angry. But sometimes it seems like threats are the only way to get compliance."
Now it was his turn to say, "Hmm." I suddenly felt uncomfortable.
"Why is it so important for you to get compliance?" he asked.
"Well, to make them behave, of course. To teach them the right way to do things."
"Do you think that threatening them teaches them the right way to do things?" he asked gently.
That didn't seem fair. Or maybe I just didn't like looking in a mirror. I didn't answer.
He took a different tack.
"What's the purpose of punishment?" he asked.
I hesitated, then finally said, "Well, it's to punish people when they do bad things. When someone does something bad, you can't just let them get away with it." I found myself exasperated. Why was he questioning such an obvious concept? "Besides," I said defiantly, "sometimes people, and children, deserve it."
"I see," he said. "Tell me, do you think seeking revenge is a positive character quality?"
"What's the emotional difference between seeking revenge and saying that someone deserves to be punished?"
"You see," he said, graciously not pushing the point, "there are really only two rational reasons to punish someone. The first reason is correction. This is as true for teaching a child not to run out in the street as it is for teaching an adult not to steal. We need to teach the child or adult to modify his or her behavior. But to achieve true, long-lasting correction, the punishment must be designed to bring about a real behavior change, not just compliance out of fear. If compliance comes only from fear, then compliance ceases as soon as the threat is removed. How many times have you told your children to do something under threat of punishment, only to have them do it when you're not around?
"In crafting punishments," he continued, "emotions cloud the picture. The common parental approach of 'if you don't stop that, I'll spank you' is often more an expression of the parent's anger than a well-thought-out punishment designed to achieve real behavior change. That's why many of our societal responses to discipline problems and crime are ineffective. They're based more on vengeance motivation than on a carefully considered correction process."
I pondered that idea for a minute, then asked, "What's the second reason for punishment?"
"To protect society," he said. "Even if correction is impossible, society must protect itself from certain types of people, such as serial killers. However, even in these cases, the punishment should be designed solely with the objective of protecting society, not exacting vengeance."
I was quiet for a long time, thinking about how I sometimes discipline my children. The thoughts did not cheer me. What would happen, I wondered, if I disciplined my children only for their benefit and not mine? What if I disciplined my children based on my intellect rather than my emotions? What if I carefully designed punishments solely to achieve real understanding and behavior change on their part, instead of the short-term quick-fix compliance that so easily masquerades as the real thing?
I decided to find out.