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Chapter 6
Punishment and Reward

“Spare the rod and spoil the child.” This saying was popular, or at least widely quoted, even in more or less recent times. It is unacceptable today, and I think with good cause. To force a child to be good is to awaken in him a resentment that will probably find full expression once he attains the “dignity” of adulthood.

Children can be spoiled. To spoil a child is to raise him in the belief that he can always get his own way, perhaps by temper tantrums, perhaps by wheedling and flattery, perhaps by playing one adult against another. (Children can be master manipulators!) It is necessary for the child to grow up with the awareness that the world is not there to do just what he wants.

Nevertheless, liberal use of the “rod” can also spoil the most beautiful aspect of a child’s nature: the quality of trust. To my mind, this kind of spoiling is even worse than giving a child free rein to indulge his every whim. For although the world shows him soon enough its massive indifference to his whims, without trust in life the child will grow up to be cynical. People who trust, and who trust in the power of love, can cope far better with life’s setbacks than those who have been schooled by punishment.

Behaviorists understand punishment and reward as a way of human conditioning. To employ this method without compassion and wisdom, however, is to manipulate others and, as the behaviorist B.F. Skinner noted approvingly in his book, Walden II, to “play God.” We have no right, as human beings, to control the lives of others, even if it is our duty to teach children right behavior. The punishment-reward method of training children is, rightly I think, offensive to the modern mentality, and is opposed by most modern methods of education.

Still, it is a fact of Nature that punishment and reward is the system by which all creatures learn. The important thing is as much as possible to allow Nature herself to do the teaching.

And so she does, quite effectively. Things are so arranged in the great scheme of things that we soon learn the lessons we need for our own survival and well being . If we touch a hot stove, for example, we burn our fingers. It shouldn’t require more than one such lesson for us to learn that the human skin was not made to have intense heat inflicted on it.

On countless other levels of our lives we learn that, by living in accordance with natural law, we prosper; but by flouting that law, we suffer.

The important point is that natural law is centered in every molecule, in every atom. It is a radiation, an expansion, outward from that center, and not an imposition from without. The lesson it teaches us is that that same natural center exists everywhere, and must be respected even as we respect our own center within ourselves. To paraphrase the words of Paramhansa Yogananda, universal law is “center everywhere, circumference nowhere.” Life teaches us to be sensitive to other realities than our own, including other people’s realities. In this way, life brings us, bit by bit, to the ultimate refinement of maturity.

Adults should be sensitive to a child’s need for awareness of these broader realities. To command the child, “Don’t you dare touch that stove!” is to offend against the natural order of things. Maturity comes not by commandment, but by gradual recognition. Thus, it would be wiser to cooperate with, and not to short-circuit, this process.

Here, then, enters the necessity for wise guidance. For every child, as well as every situation, is in some way unique. Some situations call for a more urgent response than others. Certainly, you wouldn’t let your child burn his hand on a hot stove. If he approaches it, you will instinctively cry out to him, “Don’t touch that!” Not to explain to him afterward, however, why you warned him so urgently might be to leave him baffled, even confused. Perhaps, the next time he gets the opportunity, and finds himself alone in the kitchen, he may hesitantly go to the stove and touch it. If it is still hot, it will burn him. And perhaps it is necessary that he have this experience. At least, this time, he will do so tentatively, only. But best of all is for him to be by nature reasonable, and willing to heed your reasoned explanation as to why hot stoves should not be touched.

This is a simplistic example. Life gives us many more difficult lessons to learn: why it isn’t good to hurt others; why it is good to share with them; why anger is so often self-defeating as a means of getting one’s own way; why material gain is, in itself, not satisfying. We want to spare others the need to learn every lesson through pain, but a wise parent or teacher knows that there are lessons, even painful ones, that can be learned only by actual experience.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child.” We have simply to accept that Life itself applies this truth impartially to everyone, whether children or adults. And we have to accept also that if this weren’t life’s law, we would never attain true maturity. We would in effect become spoiled because ignorant of broader realities than those of our own petty egos and our own selfish desires.

A successful businessman was once asked the secret of his success. He replied, “I allowed those under me to make mistakes, and to learn by them.” How many businessmen, by contrast, will even dismiss a subordinate for making a mistake. Ruthless leaders are notoriously intolerant of error in those serving under them. The consequence is that those people, fearful of stumbling, become stiffly unnatural in everything they do and lose altogether any tendency they may have had to be creative.

Education should be a means of encouraging, not of forcing, the development of wisdom. It should work with Nature in its inherent system of punishment and reward, and not protect children from the consequences of all their mistakes. At the same time, it should try to ease them into the discovery of these consequences in such a way that they don’t lose heart, but come to realize that such, simply, are life’s realities.

One excellent way of cooperating with Nature is to draw their attention to what they themselves have experienced as a result of their actions and attitudes. There is no harm even in setting up situations that will help them to learn these truths for themselves. Always, however, the lessons should be directed toward encouraging recognition from within, and not a didactic lesson that leaves them with the impression that you have said, in effect, “See? I told you so!” The child must be left with the thought, “I learned this lesson all by myself.”

Why should we be honest, and not dishonest? truthful, and not untruthful? self-controlled, and not self-abandoned? concentrated in our thinking, and not scattered? kind, and not callous? cooperative, and not over-competitive? Why? Not because anyone holds out these expectations of us, but simply because the positive side of each of these equations gives us, in the end, what we really want from life. It isn’t scripture, or the government, or society, or anyone’s personal convenience that dictates our need to live rightly. Natural law itself — the law of our own being — is so set up that only by harmonizing ourselves with it can we, in the long run, find our real needs served — even, if you like, our selfish needs. But refusal to harmonize ourselves with that law invariably proves disappointing to us in the end.

That, of course, is what makes wrong action wrong in the first place: It is culpable, not before God, nor before the law of the land, nor before our fellow human beings, but before the inner court of our own self-awareness.

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Chapter 7: To What End?