Friday, October 19, 2012

Punishment and Reward

by Miki Kashtan

I have been carrying a vivid memory with me for over 50 years. In it, my father is chasing me around the little circle of dining area, kitchen, corridor, and living room that existed in our apartment. In my memory, this has happened already, to me and to my older sister. I don’t know, in actuality, if it was a one-time event or recurring. As I am running away from him, I suddenly realize there is just no way I can manage to escape. He is bigger, and faster, and I am small, not as strong. Sooner or later he will catch up with me. I stop, crushed by the futility of the effort, and turn around to accept the inevitable slap in my face I know is coming. I stand in my small body facing him as he is coming my way. I close my eyes as tightly as I can, contracting the muscles around them, raise my face in his direction, and wait. The burning sensation of that slap is still imprinted on my cheek. More significant by far is the impossibility, to this day, of having a visceral understanding of how a grown man could look at his five year old daughter, see her stand the way I remember me standing, and still deliver the slap. What could possibly make it appear to be the right thing to do?

I have no awareness of what the “transgression” was that led to this event. I do know that making me submit to his will was a major project for my father. As it is for so many parents in relation to so many children.

From Demand to Request

The essential form of interaction between adults and children is based on the premise that adults tell children what to do. I was well aware of that, as a permanent insult, while growing up. I have often wondered about pushing the limits. I still do as I observe children interacting with their parents. What if a child persists in saying “no” to the parent? How far would the parent, almost any parent, let it go before threatening the child? As the threats escalate, where can the child find the increasing strength and courage required to persist? Behind it all, every child knows the parent’s superior strength, the possibility of physical violence, always present, even if never exercised. I am surprised and so grateful that any of us emerge from childhood able to stand up to authority.

Punishment is always present at the other end of a demand. When I make a demand, its essential message is that the only thing that matters is that I get my way. If I don’t, and I have the power to do so, I will punish you. If I do, I will reward you.

Shifting from making demands to making requests means embracing the possibility that the other person will say “no” and accepting it. It means letting go of using any kind of power we have to punish the other person, adult or child, for saying “no.” Without that willingness, without accepting that others are free to choose, without releasing the habit of trying to restrict others’ choice by holding the threat of negative consequences, anything we ask of another will appear like a demand.

I am totally unsurprised that people in positions of authority - parents, teachers, managers - usually balk at the notion of making requests and not demands. A teacher once said it most eloquently when I proposed that they make requests and not demands: “Oh, no. What you are talking about is democracy in the classroom. There will be no democracy in my classroom. I am the dictator - benevolent dictator, but dictator.” That was the day I decided I wouldn’t bring NVC to teachers, because I was so identified with the child’s perspective that I couldn’t recover from my own pain fast enough to shift into an empathic perspective with the teacher.

I have since learned that a less stark version of inviting the shift to requests is orders of magnitude more appealing to people, and I have never once had anyone reject it out of hand like this teacher did. I tell people that every time they get someone to do something just because they have the power to deliver unpleasant consequences (read: punishment) to them if they don’t, they lose that person’s goodwill and trust, and to be as sparing as possible in exercising that form of interaction. Very few understand the full radical implications of this statement.

Punishment, Choice, and Violence

Punishment takes many forms in adult interactions. When power differences are present, we can lose opportunities for promotion or meaningful projects, we can be fired if the “no” is big enough, we can have our access to resources restricted. We can also be imprisoned, hospitalized, or even tortured. Even within equal relationships such as friendship, neighborhood, or between lovers, we still habitually punish and reward each other for saying “no” and “yes.” Even if the punishment can be very subtle, it is nonetheless punishment. If I don’t smile at you for three days after you didn’t change the diapers of our baby, you know all too well it wasn’t a request, and you feel the force of the punishment.

We all know the experience of receiving a demand. When I most recently asked people from about ten different countries what it was like for them when they experience a demand, the responses were quite unanimous. People described the experience as one of helplessness, being overpowered, discouraged, or at times indifferent. They had an experience of closing down in response. Beyond the obvious lack of freedom, the personal cost was also of connection and of respect, both in terms of not being respected and losing respect for the person making the demand.

Why would we want to inflict this experience on anyone else?

Carol and James Gilligan
We are told that punishment deters people from continuing to engage in harmful behavior. If I had any doubt that punishment, itself, is part and parcel of the system that perpetuates violence, none is left after reading James Gilligan’s Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, a book I have referenced here more than once. The intimate links between punishment and shame and between shame and violence are described and explored in painful detail. Moreover, Gilligan convinced me beyond remaining doubt that the very system of punishment we have created is itself a form of violence, often enough taking the very same forms that the people being punished engage in.

I will forever be grateful to Marshall Rosenberg for bringing home the point that violence can only emerge from an experience of unmet needs. A human being who has access to choice, to dignity, to love is not the one to commit violence. When we punish people, we deprive them of their human dignity. While people may choose not to do certain things because of fear, the longterm consequences are increased violence. This is the horrific tragedy of any war on terror I have ever heard of.

Transcending Punishment and Reward

If we want to create societies in which people thrive, it will take all of us recovering from the millennia of systems of punishment and reward. Some may wonder why I am including rewards. Aren’t rewards a more humane way to motivate people to take positive action?

I remain uncompromising. We can only choose “yes” when we can choose “no.” The promise of reward makes the option of saying “no” challenging. The absence of a reward is its own form of punishment. Either way, we don’t experience the fundamental human access to choosing from within, knowing what we want, why we do what we do. Rewards, whether in school or in the workplace, appear to decrease performance.

I have no doubt that all of us suffer from the system of punishment and rewards that has been the prevalent form for so long. Alas, we have grown so used to this suffering, that we are not fully aware of its consequences, or see them as inevitable. More tragically, even when we know, even when we actively want to transform them, we continue to enact them. I am grateful to Dominic Barter, who applied NVC principles in a systemic way to create a restorative justice system - Restorative Circles - which is being widely used in Brazil and slowly becoming known elsewhere. He is the one who taught me that because of the prevalence of punitive systems, if we don’t consciously create an alternative, we will default back to punishment and reward, even in our personal interactions.

Not all of us are going to participate in large scale experiments to create restorative systems. Not all of us will take up any cause and fight for it. Most of us, always, will only live our own personal lives, hoping for the best for ourselves and our loved ones. We can still become personal pioneers, commit to overcoming the habit, commit to creating conscious methods of attending to our relationships so that we work out differences instead of imposing our will. At the very least, we can begin by committing to making requests, providing others with the basic access to exercising full choice.



  1. I read two blogs this morning that to my mind complimented one another. The following is a portion of the other blog (KulturCritic):

    Of course, counterinsurgency was engraved in our mission statement, long before it had a proper name. The earliest pilgrims to the New World, and explorers as far back as Chris Columbus, exercised this same methodology with the Native Americans: kill them with kindness and then, if they don’t comply, kill them with the sword. Subsequently, our government plied the tribes with trinkets, whiskey and promises; and when the going got rough, or some tribal groups refused to submit, the government sent in the troops, killing not only young braves defending their homeland, but elders, women, and children as well. (see H Zinn)

  2. While rereading a poem in a friend's collection of his mystical poetry, I spotted one that I wanted to share with Miki. But it might also touch some of her loyal readers to. You will probably realize why I chose this poem to share upon reading its title. -Ron

    Vulnerability is the Key by Jeff Wolverton

    The Beloved says, “Between you and Me
    there are forty-nine veils; between Me and you
    there are no veils.”

    But why do You keep me
    so many veils away at a distance,
    gazing at You, when my heart longs to feel
    my cheek next to Yours?
    Do You think I'm content with a glimpse of a glimpse
    of a glimpse of You?
    For years I've tried to draw close,
    sometimes making strenuous spiritual effort,
    but still Your precious intimacy eludes my heart.

    From deep within me, You answer,
    “Dear one, all your strengths and virtues together
    will not pierce a single veil.
    It is only when I bring up in you
    what is most weak and vulnerable
    that the veils are loosened and drop away,
    so that one day-you just fall
    into My arms.”

  3. I appreciate being reminded of the subtle ways we can make demands, e.g., not smiling at someone if they don't comply with what we'd like. It brings up for me that much as I might like the theory of making requests instead of demands, my ability to do so is constrained by my ability to do the inner work necessary to (a) trust that there are a multitude of other strategies out there to meet a need; (b) mourn if I don't have the ability to identify and implement any of them right then; (c) honor the "yes" behind the other person's no, and (d) remember that because we are interdependent, it is only when both people have a genuine "yes" that it will truly work for me. Otherwise, the resentment that arises with punishment/reward will undermine the very connections I value most. In saying that, what comes to mind is a recent situation where I did get "my way" at tremendous relational cost -- exactly what I didn't want, and yet we weren't able to identify strategies that would be acceptable ways of meeting both people's needs. I have tremendous mourning about that.

    Re: RC -- I just want to say that I am totally grateful to Dominic myself for the work he's done regarding RC. At the same time, I have seen and heard of much pain involved in people trying to implement restorative circles. I'm very curious about it and long to understand the difficulty in implementing them. This would be a huge topic in and of itself -- I only bring it up to say that I think it is incredibly complex and nuanced. As is, of course, our current "justice system." I would want people to hear from a variety of people about their experiences with RC if they are going to consider implementing it.

  4. Dear Miki,
    I am very grateful for what you do, the parts of your work that I have had access to so far contribute to me greatly. In wanting to be clear in getting across what I want to say, I want to explain that NVC is totally central to my life and worldview and I am deeply committed to trying to follow my path of making these principles of nonviolence manifest on every level that I can. I am writing this hoping that it might contribute to my learning on this journey, and perhaps to others too.
    Almost everything you say in this post resonates fully with me, and also I somehow feel moved to say something more in the hope of learning to more fully co-create the World I long for.

    For the past 2 years, I have been living with my partner and her 2 children, who are now just turning 4 and 6. I grew up within a very loving and also routinely punitive family. This included low levels of physical pain (being smacked) and the fear of that, shouting, etc . Through my growing up my father experienced and expressed a lot of anger and I remember understanding his presence from a young age as often frightening, threatening, and very much representing “power over” (overpowering or “authoritarian”). I did not find it possible to stand up for or as myself before his power and anger.
    These experiences, which I imagine are shared with millions of others around the world, contributed in some important way to my commitment to nonviolence, (non-hierarchical, fully inclusive and equal distribution of power and care as well as nonviolent forms of empowerment). In a related way I developed ideas about parenting and how I did and did not want it to be done. Coming into a care-giving role with young children I found that my passionately held values around nonviolent and restorative approaches to conflict and power were coming into an intense conflict with some other things that came up within me, often in very powerful bodily-felt experiences. Amongst these I found within me strong impulses towards acting out punitive, power-over and sometimes physically violent responses. Though I have not tried to use physical violence, I have at times responded in rougher ways than I feel comfortable with (for example protecting myself from something being thrown at me with a hand that holds a child’s wrist tighter than I think necessary, due to my own emotional state).
    On my long slow journey towards understanding myself in this a little more, I get the sense that a very important part of what is beneath these hard or harsh outward responses is a great sense of vulnerability in me, an openness that the harshness is somehow guarding or protecting. I sense that this openness has a huge fear of being open to being overpowered, “abused”, forced against my will, suffering “injustice”; I cannot or do not want to bear the sense of being a disempowered child whose fundamental longings for choice, equality or respect are far from fulfilled. Spending a lot of time with young children who I’m pretty sure are often not holding my needs as one of their priorities, (which I experience as both intensely frustrating and also fair enough) I find myself in the place quite often of believing on some level that the only way to look after what is really important to me– including those relating to their wellbeing, like them dressing up warm when going out for a walk in the cold when they are ill/protecting them from each other’s physical attacks - is unilaterally and through the use of power over.

  5. When I ask for something, and it is a demand, and it looks like they are not up for it, something in me freaks out, and wants to enforce my will, quite hard, and is really scared of them just walking away, getting their way. There is a difference here between demanding and use of force/power-over to enforce, and punishment, I think. Anyway, I find myself really scared of something happening that is not ok for me, and that just being how it is. Something very important in my body, my system, really is not ok with feeling the vulnerability of that, and I understand this vulnerability as an important source of the wish for power-over and sometimes retributive/punitive justice – not letting “them” “get away with it”. The thing that someone might “get away with” in these justice issues/conflicts is something incredibly intimate to me, for example choice about how my body is touched or how I get to make choices about my life. And a part of me rages against that, to protect me. I don’t want someone to get away with something that is intimately mine, and if they do, I find in myself a strong impulse to “get my own back”, to get back what is my own, somehow. I also experience this deep fear of being “abused” or over powered/disempowered in the most painful conflict I am experiencing with an adult, and in some way I want something to make the suffering I have experienced ok again. I think that is part of the deep drive towards retribution and punishment. One huge puzzle living with young children has for me been how to create some sort of non-punitive response to acts of pulling hair, biting, hitting, after the act has happened. I don’t know how to communicate and mark the meaning of the act, without stimulating guilt/shame/blame and continuing the cycles of violence and resistance. I hope a restorative approach can emerge in time, while for now it seems that leaving the meaning of acts unspoken and unheard is the best we can do.
    Part of me is very often unwilling to make requests, because I’m too scared that it means the things that are very important to me will not be taken care of. When I believe someone is really fixed on a particular strategy for meeting their needs, and it is really not working for me, I see making a request as too much of a risk sometimes, believing that it means abandoning what is important for me if they are not willing to work with me towards a way that works for us all, particularly when what they are doing is already happening, and I strongly want it to stop. Then a request can just seem too vulnerable and risky for me to be ok with. I am working towards integrating the learning that open expressions of vulnerability are often more likely to serve everyone than hiding that vulnerability (in anger or accusation or whatever), and I see that when I don’t have the option of a protective use of force, connection might be more likely to actually take us all in the direction I want to go in than anything else. And at the same time I really find it hard to open myself to the vulnerability which I experience in these power dynamics as disempowerment and a sense of “being crushed”. If the thing that is not working for me is continuing although I have tried to request something different, with as much of an energy and approach of request as I can in the moment, I seem to come to a binary choice between power-over or abandoning what is important to me.
    For me this stuff relates to the question of how to respond non-violently to power-over? And the way I have been understanding it, sometimes children also use power-over, or at least something which is not power with.

  6. What I want to say, by saying all this, is that
    - I really want to understand, and really, empathically and respectfully understand, what the life in punitive and power-over responses is, and to find strategies that really, practically take care of what those punitive strategies are trying to take care of
    -I think what I find I experience may be another way in which punitive or power-over responses continue the cycle of violence- I wonder if “triggered” parents who hit or punish their children are experiencing what it was like to be thus disempowered as a vulnerable child, and hitting out to protect something very intimate of theirs – trying desperately to meet needs which relate to self-respect/love, self-care, self-acceptance (which are not met when they experience themselves through the narrative that “someone is ignoring me, not listening to me, doing bad things and I am powerless”)
    -in my experience so far, a commitment to these values, and a rough awareness of new ways of doing things really hasn’t been enough, I don’t know how to look after everything that I want to in a nonviolent and restorative way.
    I long to find a way to embody the principles that I believe will support peace and wellbeing in all our Hearts. I would really appreciate hearing any responses.

    1. Dear Paul,

      I am writing with just about infinite gratitude for the meticulous way in which you describe the internal experience of the parent. So viscerally clear, there is nothing left to my imagination, no invisible dot to connect.

      I want to do only two things here. One is to clarify that power-over is an approach, and is independent of how much power we actually have. We can have lots of power and never use it over another, or we can have little to no power and still use, or try to use, that little power over another. I plan to come back to issues of power again, hopefully soon.

      The second is to point you and others toward a resource that is not as well known as I would like, and discusses the themes you raised in a way I was very touched and pleased by. It's called "Power Under: Trauma and Nonviolent Social Change." It's by Steve Wineman, and is an unpublished manuscript you can get for free online here: I found it truly insightful about precisely these kinds of issues, and the reclaiming of the willingness to be vulnerable the most powerful antidote.

      With much much care and gratitude,


    2. Thank you Paul for this. I am also struggling in my parenting with living nonviolence in the way I aspire to. One of the results of growing up with physical and emotional abuse and neglect is that I, too, have developed a deep commitment to living nonviolence in every way I can. I am only recently beginning to uncover what that means. And the other piece is that reactivity and violence live deep in my body memory without the experience of tenderness to balance it out. Becoming a conscious parent takes a lot of focus and consciousness to unlearn what I have learned. When my kids lash out in anger or say hurtful and vindictive things to each other I am lost in my own upset about injustice and find myself behaving in ways I would never endorse. Ironically I am wanting to protect my children's innocence in a way that mine never was. I guess innocence is very close to vulnerability. This is an ongoing journey for me so I don't have a magic answer but I am believing that most of the work in creating peace in our families is preventative--building strong relationships with our kids and nurturing their spirits. Responding to difficult behavior is necessary but that is not where the most essential work is. It's just what gets the most attention. If we keep the focus on "what to do when they do x..." I think we stay on a perpetual roller coaster of incident to incident. Putting the focus on the needs being expressed and addressing those as much as possible proactively I believe can make a huge difference. I'm still working on understanding this and figuring out how to practice it.

      I also believe that children CAN take your needs as the parent to heart. At least one of my kids (he's only 5) shows amazing empathy for me and even for others who are not treating him with respect. It seems to be totally natural for him. So I know its possible.

      One very essential piece for me to keep me on the track I want to be on is to hold my children as beings that I am given to care for and never seeing it as my responsibility that they turn out a certain way. I want to continue to have deep faith in their own human journeys and the human developmental process. I see my task as one of continual discovery of who they are and what they want to create and not of shaping or controlling their development. There is something about the fear of them turning out badly (in my judgement) that triggers a panic response in me to control their behavior, even if it means resorting to threats and coercion. Clearly this work is mine to do and not my children's.

      Hoping this is of some use to you, Paul. Bless you for taking on another woman's children and being thoughtful and conscious about how you do that. Thank you Miki for the resource you mentioned. I have also found the work of Gordon Neufeld on attachment parenting very helpful in terms of reframing my mindset. I have yet to totally transform my actions but I am moving in that direction.

      This morning I overheard my youngest telling his dad (I hadn't gotten out of bed yet) "I like the food that mommy makes for me but I don't like how she tells me how to eat at the table. It's like she's bossing me around." No upset, just factual. Our children can be great teachers too if we let them.

  7. I just wanted to say thank you, to you both Sarah and Miki, for your responses, I am grateful for them.

  8. Thanks Miki. Keep learning over and over how difficult it is to hear no and make requests, congruent. Keep finding that the external expression of threat, is accompanied by an unresolved internal threat and internal demand. How can we shift internal punishment and demand and mourn when people say no to demands (disguised as and longing to peacefully evolve to requests)? Thanks. Joy to all. Srinath xx