“What did I do?” the child asks as he is being reprimanded, apparently unaware that their behavior in question was unacceptable. For the adult, the answer to that question is obvious: “child, you did something that you weren’t supposed to do.” Still confused, the child asks, “why?”
The disciplining adult may feel like this question is unnecessary and that her authority is being unjustly questioned by someone who has no business to do so. She might respond testily, “What? Why did you do it or why is it wrong? I have no idea why you did it, but it is wrong; you can’t do that!”
That answer is no good for the child, however; they are unable to understand the consequences of their actions. The reprimand is meaningless, and any accompanying punishment likewise.
So, instead the adult attempts to discipline the child, rather than punishing him. She uses her authority to show the child not only why his action was wrong but also how it negatively affected those around him or himself. Granted, this doesn’t always work, but it is better than saying “just because.”
The why and how of the wrongness of an action are critical elements to consider when disciplining. This is true not only for children but also in considering the actions of adults. It is a central element of teaching, re-teaching, or rehabilitating people so that they may be positive contributors to society. If offenders do not understand the why and/or the how, it is unlikely that they would change their behavior.
Yet, these questions of “why?” and “how?” should not be one sided. We should not always consider the rules as given. Sometimes it is necessary to revisit rules and their origins. We should scrutinize many “why’s” and “how’s” such as, “why is this rule in place?” or “how does the prohibited action harm either the offending individual or those around them?” or “how does the response to the violation of the rule better society?”
These, of course, are not easy questions to answer. They are questions that are equally valid in the adult-child relationship and in the society-person relationship. Sometimes such questions are hotly debated. Often they are ignored. Mostly they are not revisited. The public consciousness of society forgets why a rule was set in the first place. It also fails to consider and reconsider how the banned action actually affects people in the contemporary context. Commonly we ignore how the responses to those actions should work; ideally, they should ameliorate the problem rather than exasperate it. Instead Americans often push for punishment, and more of it, which in turn exasperates problems by creating cycles of poverty, crime, or deviance.
A common refrain against the reduction or outright opposition of harsh sentencing is “maybe folks should take responsibility for their actions and not do something if the punishment is what it is.” A quick look at any internet message board below a story on a convicted individual will display a variation of that phase. People rarely ask the key questions: why is an action wrong; how does it harm; and how can we curb or eliminate those harms?
I was tempted to use drug use or immigration to illustrate the need to evaluate those questions, but those examples tend to ruffle feathers and get bogged down in debate. Let’s take a mundane, but equally common example: failure to pay child support.
If someone fails to pay child support, our gut instinct is to call that person a deadbeat parent. We say that it is wrong because that person is not supporting their kid. However, that answer isn’t always true. I have met several dads who paid child support over the years. Many of them were forced to pay a portion of their earnings that far exceeded the needs of the child and often for low wage earners, if support was paid in full, would leave them with not enough to make ends meet for themselves. And, it was not uncommon for the money that they did send to be spent on things that were not for their child at all. Yet, the punitive instincts in us might say, “if they cannot afford to have kids, they shouldn’t have them… so now, tough.”
However, that sentiment fails to consider all of our questions. It doesn’t even given proper audience to the first question, “why is not paying your child support, in full, wrong?” We must ask, was the judgment against the supporting parent enough to take care of the child, or did it exceed that child’s needs? Is that money even going to the child? Sometimes we ought to consider changes in circumstances for liable parents, for instance loss of job or change of pay. The later example is one that occurs to many military dads whose liabilities were assessed when they were deployed, earning deployment and hazard pay bumps to their normal base salary. When that dad, who is no longer able to pay the child support and cover his own expenses a deadbeat? Possibly not.
We are then forced to ask the second question: “who is harmed by failure to pay child support?” Again, there are two elements to consider in this question. One is a wholesale failure to pay all of the child support. The other is a failure to pay some of the child support.
In the former case, we see that children, who are dependent on that payment to pay for their needs would suffer. However, in the latter case, we would have to consider the extent to which the paid child support, even if it is not in full, provides for the needs of the child. Relative harm might be assessed by determining the items a child needs and forgoes as a result of the diminished payment. Considering that, it is possible that the parent pays enough to provide for the basic needs but not enough to satisfy the ordered payment. In that event, assessing harm and wrongdoing becomes far more murky.
This brings us to our final question “how does the response the failure to pay all of one’s child support better society?” There are two common responses to dealing with people who fail to pay their child support. One is garnishing their wage. If the parent whose wages are garnished can afford to live and continue working then this is a reasonably good solution. But what happens if the parent cannot pay his or her expenses as a result of the wage garnishment? The state, in enforcing its order, creates a situation where it inflicts harm upon a person by causing them difficulty in providing for themselves. This could have a knock-on effect, such as loss of housing, which could then turn into a loss of employment or mental health problems. Should such consequences arise, garnishment ultimately backfires as the capacity to collect decreases. As the old saying goes, you cannot squeeze water from a rock.
The other response is incarcerating the delinquent parent. In this case, as one prosecutor once said to me, “what is the point? If I lock the dad up for not paying, the kid still doesn’t receive child support and, on top of that, the dad can’t do anything the whole time he is locked up to change that.”
In both cases, the punishment ultimately creates further problems and is results in a net loss for society by increasing the harms experienced by the children that the law is trying to protect.
This example is one of many situations where policy fails to consider and reconsider the important questions of “why?” and “how?” Failure to answer the questions often results policy and practices are not working as predicted. Understanding why problems exist and how to lessen their negative impacts to society should be our goals. However, if we only focus on punishing folks for things we have prohibited, without periodically reconsidering why the rule was there in the first place and its current usefulness, we run the risk of damaging society in a way we fail to foresee.