Something we hear a lot from those who advise parents, is the need for consistency with our discipline. Logically, in terms of the need, I couldn’t agree more. It’s not a deterrent if the miscreant lacks a reasonable expectation of the penalty and if punishment fails for no other reason, this would be enough, and this may be the most epic of all of the failures in our system of punishment. Consistency is an illusion. First, consistency is not completely within our control, is it? You have to catch them first: any misbehaviour that is undetected can never be punished in the first place, and so, regardless of whether we are capable of machine-like consistency ourselves, consistency fails in the real world.
The success of the use of punishment depends on the subject’s knowledge that the unpleasantness is coming, so that he or she may alter their actions to avoid the consequence. Therefore, there must be a warning, an explanation of the process, “you do this, and you get that.” The explanation, and/or simple repetition connect the behaviour to the punishment, and the child learns to change their ways, and so the child’s behaviour is improved, hopefully in the long term. It needs to be said, that the sort of control that could provide the recommended consistency to make punishing reliable is only possible with very young children indeed. Punishment is insidious that way; it can appear to work on babies and very young toddlers, but as soon as a child gets his legs and a little freedom, as soon as he discovers for that very first time that all his crimes are not detected and punished, it’s over.
(Of course, I don’t advocate for improvement in our consistency, quite the reverse. If we were to do what would be necessary for one hundred percent consistent application of detection and penalization, that would be a nightmare even worse than the random abuse we live with now. That situation would be a futuristic police state that even George Orwell would not wish to imagine.)
With the failure of consistency being the norm, we must confess that the deterrent component of punishment fails, yes, but also the whole concept. Human beings are not inanimate things, we can see that the behaviour our punishments are intended to change do not have to change for us to escape the penalty, only the detection of the behaviour. When punishment is the tool being applied, we only ever need to learn a single lesson, “don’t get caught,” and we will also have our justification to ignore the intended lessons. With the failure of consistency comes the failure of punishment to correct behaviours, and our ‘punishments’ therefore fail the definition and fall from grace into mere abuse, at least in the minds of the punished. Of course, that is where the damage occurs.