A prisoner is being tortured to give up vital wartime secrets or sign a false confession. Eventually, he realizes he has to give in -- but when he sits in the chair indicated by his captors, he moves it an inch to the right. It's his way of preserving his own sense of freedom and his belief in his free will.
Meanwhile, a six-year-old is being kept in time-out until he will say sorry. It's been an hour and he finally gives in. But he will only say it in the world's quietest voice. His parents send him back until he can say it "like he means it."
The two situations are very different. One is truly "cruel and unusual" while the other one is just a time-out. But the goal is the same: to force someone to do something they strongly do not want to do. One person uses some form of punishment to override another person's will in the hopes of making it choose what they want it to choose.
I don't believe in doing this to kids. It just rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it helps that I have a very good memory. I remember exactly how it felt to be put in situations like this. It was like being between a rock and a hard place. My own sense of morals and self-respect demanded that I follow through with what I had said I would do. If I'd refused to say sorry, I had to stick with it or I was being dishonest and inconsistent. I knew I would hate myself for saying it, if I gave in, and I felt kind of like a hero for not doing it. But at the same time, I also knew I was supposed to obey my parents. I wished so hard they had asked for something different, or asked in a way that would let me save face. Instead I would eventually give in, but with my own twist: I could say sorry quietly, I could write it instead of saying it, I could say it in a tone of voice that would make it clear I didn't mean it. That way I could live up to my own convictions and get out of time-out sometime before I turned eighteen.
What seems odd to me is that parenting books that go on and on about how coercion is bad still tend to recommend tactics like this. Parenting With Grace, which I otherwise enjoyed, recommends a time-out procedure that includes never getting out until the child re-does to the parent's satisfaction whatever they did wrong. I'm sure there are lots of compliant children who would wait out their time and then do what their parent asked, because they asked it. But the "strong-willed" kids, like me or my siblings or my son? We would stay in that time-out for ever, and if we ever capitulated, we'd hate ourselves and our parents for it. That anger would end up coming out in other incidents later in the day or the week, and our parents wouldn't know why we had so much bitterness stored up.
(As far as I remember, this didn't happen all that often. My parents didn't often try to go toe-to-toe with me, and anyway I did try to please them in general. And my vaunted willpower that I was so proud of usually caved after ten minutes of time-out. Time-out was the worst punishment for me. I hated it so much. Spankings weren't so bad, because once they were over, they were over, even if you didn't say sorry.)
Now I'm not saying coercion is equivalent to torture, or that it's immoral, or that it makes you a bad parent. I just think it's counterproductive. Don't we want to raise children who would withstand torture rather than give up their faith or tell where the Jews are hidden? Don't we want our kids to listen to their inner voice over any outer voice that tries to pressure them into something that they know is wrong? Besides, coercion inspires so much anger and bitterness. Kids of all ages consider it a virtue to stand up to someone who tries to coerce them. If they can't manage that, they'll try to get back in other ways. There's no winning once you get into that kind of battle. Either you lose it, or you find yourself in a full-fledged war.
So what sorts of things count as coercion?
*Spanking a child until they confess to something. Yes, even if you know they did it. (Much worse if you later turn out to be wrong!)
*Making a child repeat, word for word, a phrase we think they should use until they do it in the tone we want.
*Repeating a punishment over and over until some magic word is said or action done. Of course, with spanking or withholding food or shutting out in the cold, this could be terribly dangerous, as well, and we've seen that in some recent child-abuse deaths. The punishment was to continue until the child "gave in" -- and the child's will was, in a few cases, stronger than their life. It doesn't matter how minor the original issue was. For the child, it's a question of their personal integrity, and they completely lose sight (as the parents seem to have) of how minor an issue it is.
Pretty much any time you say, "I will keep doing X to you until you do Y," you are coercing a child. On the other hand, logical or natural consequences don't seem coercive to me. I'm thinking of things like this:
*I will not pick you up if you are hitting me.
*Until those chores are done, we won't be going to the store.
*As long as you have no pants on, we are not going outside.
It's still an "until" kind of thing. I spent an hour with Marko once trying to get him to put his pants on. Sure, I could have just grabbed him and stuck his pants on. But I thought I'd give him a chance to learn about choices, so I said, "We will go outside when you are wearing pants. If you are not wearing pants, we will stay inside." It took him about an hour, during which he cried occasionally, but mostly just played with his inside toys, until he came up to me and asked for his pants.
It just doesn't seem like coercion to me because he had a choice, and both choices were okay. Playing inside naked was okay, and playing outside with pants was okay. I didn't insist he say or do a certain thing a certain way ... I just wanted to let him play outside without flashing the entire neighborhood. (Not that it would shock them, at this point.) I was trying to make a framework in which he could exercise his will freely, but only in ways that were acceptable to me. So I was limiting his will, but not forcing it one way or the other.
The same goes for the hitting thing. Up with no hitting and down are both viable options. I'm not trying to control him, but trying to respect myself. I can't let myself be hurt, so I have come up with two ways for him not to hurt me: down, or up while being gentle.
Meanwhile, when trying to teach something -- and this is more with older kids, like my students -- I try to leave an "out." In other words, I leave a way for the child to cooperate with me while saving face. For instance, if they ask for something in a rude way, I say, "Gee, that sounds rude. Can you try another way?" I might suggest another way, but anything they come up with that isn't rude is fine. If they can't come up with a way that isn't rude, I just say, "Well, I just don't feel like doing that for you when you ask that way. Why don't you try again later?" Putting it off till later gives the child a chance to think of a better way to ask, get out of the rude mood they're in, or maybe even decide they don't want what they originally asked for. (And that's fine too.)
Sometimes, especially when I feel the child didn't know they were doing something wrong, I don't correct at all. I just say, "Sure, I will do that for you. Next time, though, you should try a more polite way, like 'Please would you sharpen my pencil?'" In other words, I don't bother trying to fix this time. They did their best for this time, but they get a suggestion for next time. That way, they have a chance to learn the right way without ever being "wrong." I mean, wouldn't it be awful if the only way to learn a math problem was to do it wrong first? Wouldn't we rather be shown how first, and then have the test? A wrong answer can really make you feel dumb, even after you learn what the right answer is.
It just seems to me that, even if you are giving a child a consequence for something, it's much better to just give the consequence and let it speak for itself than require a behavior change immediately after. Punishment makes you feel bad. Right after one isn't a good time for learning. You don't feel like cooperating, so you do it in the least cooperative way you can. I'd rather just punish a child for hitting and then let him get back to playing than try to force him to apologize. (Though my usual method is just to separate the child so he can't hit anymore.) That way a consequence is really a consequence -- a result of past action -- rather than a form of coercion, intended to derive some further action. Kids aren't dumb. They can still use the experience of the unpleasant consequence to shape their actions next time. But they can do it on their own time, in their own way, with their own will.
What do you think? I picked a harsh word, "coercion," because I don't see another word that quite fits what I'm trying to describe. Even so, is this something you do or would do? What do you do instead?