Should you punish your child for bad school behaviour?

Expert advice on what to do if your child acts out at school

Q: My nine-year-old son was sent to the principal’s office yesterday. He and his friends were making rude gestures. We have grounded him from playdates and video games this weekend. Is this fair? Should I talk to the other parents whose sons were in on the joke?

A: I am sure you must have been taken aback by the news of your son’s behaviour. But you also referred to the boys’ behaviour as being a “joke.” I think you’re sharing that your interpretation of the events was that a few kids were messing around and being “silly.” Although inappropriate at school, it sounds like an innocent incident. If the school didn’t alert the other parents, there’s no reason for you to. Just focus on your own part of the issue.
You asked if your disciplinary actions were fair. The idea behind discipline is to teach and guide. Ask yourself:

• Has he learned his lesson?
• Are there any restorative actions that are required?
• Is he likely to do this again?
• Does he understand why his behaviour was inappropriate?

I suspect being called to the office was traumatic enough and he won’t be doing this again. He has learned. There is no need to do more. Anything above and beyond would feel unfair. Perhaps you sensed this intuitively, which is why you were asking me.

Taking away his games and playtime is punitive. Research shows that kids don’t actually learn well from punishment and instead of improving behaviour, it makes matters worse. Your son will feel that he is being treated unfairly and he will likely rebel and retaliate. If he’s a gentle soul, he may take it, but feel cut down by your actions, so it will hurt his self-esteem.

If your child has gotten into trouble and is willing to tell you about it, the best reply is: “I’m sorry you had a bad day. It took a lot of courage to tell me about it. I trust it’s been looked after now and hope tomorrow is better for you. Would you like a hug?” Allowing for bygones tells your son that you love him unconditionally, and frees him from the past so he sees he can always change his behaviour. Failure to have a bygones attitude can lock him into the role of “bad boy” and he’ll likely live up to that expectation.