Dealing with People Who Punish

3606314694_cf0a20a0ea_mThe doctor’s waiting room was filled with patients. All sat quietly except for a three-year-old child who took command of the floor and whose annoying conduct seemed to pollute the atmosphere. She was at war with her mother. The people glanced furtively in her direction and then away.

The mother was obviously embarrassed by the little girl’s conduct. Finally she attempted to reduce the annoyance in the room by picking the child up and holding her tightly. Predictably, this led to a struggle of huge proportions. The three-year-old protested loudly and writhed to be free.

The mother appeared in danger of being conquered, but not the three-year-old. She fought resolutely, likely knowing instinctively that she had a secret weapon: she had an audience which likely suppressed the mother’s resolution to manage her with authority.

Finally, the mother released the child from her grip. It didn’t seem to occur to her to take her out into the hall or even back to the car for a cooling-off period. Rob the little girl of her audience and the balance of power would change quickly.

Instead, the harried mother surrendered, setting the three-year-old back on her feet. It was not enough for the child to have won the battle, however. She then took a few steps away, turned back toward her mother and began to berate her in a loud voice.

“You’re a bad mommy. I hate you. I hate you. You’re bad!” Her little face contorted with anger as she spit out the words. The poor mother sat looking straight ahead. It was as though she had been thrown to the mat.

Some of the older persons in the room must have blanched at the unchecked punishment the child was handing out. They may have thought to themselves, if such developing behavior is not soon arrested the three-year-old is on her way to becoming a lifetime punisher.

As she grows older, siblings will get punished. So will school or work associates. Perhaps many years hence her spouse will slowly wilt under her tested, sophisticated skills of punishing. Her close friends will be few.

Consider some forms of punishment these practiced punishers use.

Anger appears to be a foremost weapon. Sometimes it explodes, like a bomb. Sometimes it is less obvious, lying below the surface, yet ready for release at any moment. The person who has previously experienced the emergence of this concealed anger is rendered uncomfortable and off-balance, but uncertain of the reason for it or how to counter it.

Some punishers use a sullen silence to show their displeasure. It may be effective in delivering the intended message, but it’s never effective in returning a relationship to some sort of normalcy. It’s a dead-end method, and unchallenged early in life it is a method hard to counter.

I’ve also seen sarcasm used as punishment. The person skilled with this technique usually doesn’t use explosive sarcasm for all present to feel. Rather it is made up of little underhanded cuts slipped in here and there and left to create internal pain and confusion.

Sometimes the most damaging kind of punishment is “bad-mouthing.” Children who grow to adulthood without sufficient parental and societal restraint and the pruning of their modes of relating may have learned to respond to thwarting with this technique.

They diminish their target by eagerly spreading false complaints and rumors about them behind their backs.  This can damage the victim’s reputation and cripple relationships. Punishers deeply steeped in this mode of vying for control seem to have no conscience about the hurt they cause.

All this makes firm parental responses exceedingly important to such punishing skills as the three-year-old displayed in the doctor’s waiting room.   In her best moments she was probably a delightful child. But this inclination to punish those who thwart her will cripple her, if not treated as serious. It will greatly diminish her pleasure in life as well as the pleasure of close associates.

One can ask: if parents neglect to confront these anti-social modes of relating early and with serious intent, is this neglect not a form of child abuse? What makes such failure all the more serious is that such conduct in a three-year-old can be quite readily confronted with success.

On one occasion my wife and I saw an example of effective parenting close up. We were invited to dine with a young family in a fine restaurant. The three-year-old, a delightful child in our experience, had apparently already been inclined on several prior occasions to make a fuss whenever a public setting provided the stage where she could set her will against parental wishes. Her parents had developed a strategy that they said was gradually curbing this behavior. Here is what we saw.

Before entering the restaurant, I heard her father rehearse the ground rules. He told her quietly as we walked from the car that there would be many other people around us and, for their sakes, she must not cause a stir; she must do as she was told while inside.

And then I heard him say quietly but clearly, “If you cry or make noise, or if you don’t do what Daddy tells you, I will take you outside and we’ll wait outside until you tell me you are settled and ready to return.”

Soon after we were seated there was a slight stir where she sat. The father had apparently detected the early symptoms. He got up quietly and carried the three-year-old out. Fellow diners heard only seconds of her protests.

We later learned that all he did was to hold her and lovingly tell her she must stop crying and be ready to do what he told her before he would take her back into her dinner.  Some time later they returned. Her cheeks were wet with tears. She took her place and the meal went forward happily without episode.

As we were leaving the restaurant, the patrons around us, not knowing the meaning of the father’s earlier departure with the child, spoke warmly to the parents about how amazed they were by the fine conduct their young children had shown — an uncommon sight in fine dining places, I’m told.

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Photo credit: G. Westfall (via


One thought on “Dealing with People Who Punish

  1. As I read this weeks piece I got a surprise,Pastor Don.I’d feared the harrassed mother was about to hand out a disproportionate or inappropriate punishment to her little girl.I’d assumed the mother was the punisher of the title.Of course,even 3 year olds can be punishers.This is a very perceptive observation of human family behaviour.

    The old folk rhyme goes,about a little girl, ”When she was good she was very very good but when she was naughty she was horrid” Wisdom & experience doubtless lies behind this rhyme.

    Only last week,with the congregant I sit next at Lord’s Supper,my friend,church elder Christine,we discussed how some children seem to rule their parents & overpower them nowadays.Some Sundays we can’t hear the sermon when a bored little one gets gets too loud & boisterous.

    The concealed anger you mention ,Pastor ,can be a dreadful weapon.Known sometimes as passive aggression or between spouses ,as” being given the silent treatment” it’s very unpleasant to be on the receiving end of.Then ,as you say,there’s sulking or petulance.That too certainly makes one uncomfortable.Sarcasm too can hurt ,but to my sensibility not as much as concealed anger,which is what unsettles me most,more than bad mouthing, which is unpleasant enough.

    What amazes me is that a 3 year old is able to use such sophisticated tactics.But you’re right ,Pastor.I’ve seen it.Thank goodness I was blessed in the good behaviour of the two girls I raised.I was very lucky.

    What good parenting from the parents you witnessed ,which you describe in your culmination.They were gentle,loving ,reassuring,reasoning,,kind & talked privately with their little one ,without embarassing her in front of others.This is how it should be,because of course parents love their children very much and vice versa.

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