Moral Justification of Family Punishment

Janet Kuypers essay

    X punished Y for doing Z by doing W.
    person (parent)punished offender (child) for doing wrong action by punishing (penalizing) them.

    What makes certain punishments within a family morally right or wrong? What makes the parent morally justified in punishing their child?
    The rights based view in reference to punishment is a very general viewpoint. In the book Right Conduct, the rights based view is elaborated upon: however, it is only elaborated upon in reference to capital punishment. But what types or sorts of viewpoints should be taken into consideration when it comes to raising a child? The family situation poses quite a number of new questions when it comes to the appropriate punishment of a child. What forms of punishment are too harsh?? When should punishment be used? These questions may seem hard to answer, but when taking on the standpoint of a believer of the rights based viewpoint, the conception of the best, most correct, most appropriate, or the healthiest method of punishment for a child in a family situation is much more clearly outlined.
    In teaching a child “rights” and “wrongs”, the child is usually taught that they cannot do something wrong (something which will badly or poorly effect others). Hitting a sibling causes harm to the object-- in this case the sibling-- therefore, it is wrong for the subject-- in this case the child-- to do the action (hitting the sibling). The child not cleaning their room as they were told to do forces someone else, usually a parent, to clean it, causing them undue stress and work and a reduction of their time. This is not the right thing for the child to do-- not only because they were told by their parents to clean their room, but also because their not doing it caused someone else-- in this case, one or both of the parents-- extra work.
    In respect to the protection of the rights of the offended (in the family case, the parents): the parents have the ability and the right to use force to defend their rights, and more importantly in reference to the preliminary factors of the case of punishment for a child, the parents have the ability and the right to “make threats”.
    The parents, in essence, have the right and the duty to inform the would-be violators (in this case, the child) of possible punish- ment. This can simply be referred to as “threatening”, for the parent has the right to threaten the child with possible punishment if they feel that the child is planning to (“threatening to”) or going to deviate from what the family household heads consider “right”.
    Following with this thought, it would seem plausible that if a parent has the right to protect their rights, then a parent would have the right to coerce their child by way of threats in order to stop the child from doing something wrong, and in turn violating the parent’s rights. When a parent threatens a child, with bodily harm or otherwise, on the condition that the child violates the rights of the parent, or, say, another sibling or friend (the rights of a third party), the parent still doesn’t remove from the child the liberty of violating those rights. However, the liberty that is removed from the child is the liberty to violate the rights of others without having those said “threats” or conditions actually inflicted upon him or her.
    An aspect that now needs to be addressed is that there are two consequences to the fact that the parents each hold the right to punish.
    1) Guilt is a necessary condition of the permissibility of punishment. Because there is no logic and no reason for punishing a child when they have not violated anyone else’s rights, it cannot be allowed.
    2) It is not allowed or permissible to punish a child without having previously stating the threat of punishment. If the intent to punish was not previously announced in the past, then the child should not be punished because the child did not know that they were actually doing something wrong. Never stating the threat or the intent to punish allows the statement to follow that the parent cannot carry out a threat that they did not make.
    These guidelines can be summarized in the following equations:
    1) X cannot punish Y for doing Z if Y did not do Z.
    2) X cannot punish Y for doing Z by doing W if Y did not know that they would be punished for doing Z.
    When determining the appropriate amount of punishment of a child after the child has committed a crime, it is necessary to consider the extent of the “crime” that had been committed-- in other words, there is a direct relationship between the extent of the deviance on the part of the child and the extent of the punishment on the part of the parents. Then there are three basic points in determining the correct or appropriate amount of punishment to inflict upon the child.
    1) The proportionality of the degree of severity of the punishment of the child by the parent should be directly proportional to the degree of severity of the deviation on the part of the child.
    This statement was said in the preceding paragraph. An example is as follows: it would be inappropriate for the parent to yell at their child after the child hit their sibling, if in another situation the parent would hit the child if the child was only yelling at their sibling. A constancy of punishment helps the child develop a better understanding of their guidelines.
    2) There is an upper limit to the amount of punishment a parent should give their child, and that upper limit is never to exceed the importance of the rights of the child. In other words, the child’s rights that the parents are removing through punishment cannot be of greater value that the rights that the child was removing by going against the parent’s wishes. As an exaggerated example, it can be said that a parent cannot kill their child because the child hit the parent, because the parents would be removing a more important right from the child than the child was removing from the parent (although killing the child would be wrong for a variety of other reasons as well, of course). The most (in the physical sense) that the parent could do to punish their child would be to hit them. However, some may argue that it is morally wrong to hit a child, and that point will not be addressed in this essay.
    3) It is not correct morally for the parent to use more than the minimum necessary punishment in order to teach the child the sense of right and wrong in a particular situation. In the example of a child hitting a sibling, it may be permissible for the parents to ground the child for a month. However, if all that the child needs in order for them to learn their lesson is to be grounded for a week, then it is morally wrong to punish them for an entire month. If it is not necessary to infringe the rights of the child, then it is not permissible.
    These guidelines can also be summarized in the following equations: 1) X cannot infringe upon the rights of Y if Y’s rights to M are greater than X’s rights to N.
    2) X cannot infringe upon the rights of Y if it is possible to only infringe upon rights that are of less importance for Y than M.
    M and N in these cases are the rights of the child and the parent, respectively, that would be infringed upon in the event of the child acting in a deviant behavior to their parent’s wishes and in the event of the parent punishing the child for the action.
    However, one must always keep in mind that there never seems to be a clear- cut and entirely appropriate form of punishment for a deviant child. Raising a child in the best way possible means so much more to the parent than the appropriate form of punishment for a criminal in a court of law (which is the reference that the book Right Conduct makes to the concept of the rights based viewpoint, which has been elaborated upon in this essay). Furthermore, the growing years in a child’s life are absolutely crucial-- the childhood and adolescent years in a child’s life are where they learn their exact sets of standards and morals and values. Even in the infancy years showing the appropriate amount of restraint toward the child’s abilities shows the child that there is a certain set of “rights” and “wrongs” that the child must adhere to. It is imperative to build a framework for the child to follow, for building a framework for the child to follow with an exact set of standards enables the child to know exactly what is considered right and wrong, and enables the child to know exactly what the consequences are for doing the wrong thing versus the right thing. Studies show that psycho- logically disturbed adolescents and children often come from parents that each possess different frameworks when it comes to punishing their children. One parent may be too harsh while the other parent may be too lenient, and the child often then becomes confused and disturbed. Children that are insecure tend to come from a household where the parents both had weak and fluctuating standards when it came to punishing their children. The child wouldn’t know what was right or wrong because their parents never taught them, and the child wouldn’t know what the consequences were for their actions, for the consequences for their actions were always different because their parents had no strict guidelines when it came to punishing their children. Children can grow up to be meek and fearing if their parents were too strict in their punishments, and children can grow up to be overly defiant if their parents were too lenient in their punishments. It is not possible to even begin to explore the possibilities for what is considered too strict or too lenient of punishment. Some may argue that hurting a child through punishment is morally wrong and should not be done, whereas some people may argue that sometimes punishment through, for example, hitting a child, is the only thing that will help the child learn that what they did was wrong. The question of the harshness of punishments can often only be addressed in particular cases and in particular families.
    As a general remark, it is very possible to adversely effect a child by inappropriate punishment.
    The best way to ensure that the child grows up in the healthiest way possible is to develop a solid set of standards or guidelines for the child to follow, let the child know what those standards are, and then follow through on them.



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