The divine messages revealed throughout history have certain constant, unchanging features: warning (the disbelievers) and bringing glad tidings (to the believers); encouragement and dissuasion; and reward and punishment. This is because the result of actions -- be it prosperity or wretchedness; ending up in Paradise or Hell -- is the ultimate purpose of worshiping Allah The Almighty.
Allah The Almighty created humans in a manner that they are ready to accept reform through the methodology of reward and punishment. Children can be easily molded and the person who takes care of them during the childhood years is the one who forms the characteristics and traits of their personality. The Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, said: ~“Every child is born in the state of Fitrah (innate sound predisposition, which means Islam) and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian.”~~
The young child has the ability to do both what is right and what is wrong, but he may not know the difference between them. Hence, the methodology of reward and punishment emerges as one of the most important means of achieving a sound upbringing. The purpose of this methodology is to teach the child how to do what is right and avoid what is wrong so that he is motivated to do the right things, while avoiding what is wrong and to abide by this guidance.
However, for this methodology to be fruitful there should be many restrictions when rewarding the child for a good deed or punishing him for a wrong one.
The most important restrictions include being just when punishing children and the most important aspects of this justice are:
1. Do not punish only one child and let other guilty children get away, for this makes the child confused about the true concept of justice.
2. Punishment should not be meted out if the child is innocent.
This requires being careful and ascertaining that the mistake was made by the child, not by others. Many children resort to defensive lying or retaliation and they may tell persuasive stories so that others would be punished instead of them just because they are older or have a stronger ability to express themselves. When an innocent child is punished, he feels oppressed and this has dire consequences on the psychology and future of the child. Thus, the simplest right of the oppressed child is to apologize to him so that we remove the effects of oppression and teach him how to admit a mistake.
3. Children should not be punished for behavior that they did by mistake or out of forgetfulness, or compulsion.
Out of His mercy for His slaves, Allah The Almighty pardons them if they forget something, do it by mistake or because of being coerced to do it. The Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, said: ~“Allah The Almighty has pardoned my Ummah (nation) for what they do by mistake, forgetfulness and what they are coerced to do.”~~ There can be many situations of this sort, for instance children might forget what they were asked to do; knock over a dish by mistake and spill food; or hasten to fetch a dish for the mother but they might not be able to carry it so that it falls and is broken. Allah The Almighty pardons adults in such cases, so how can we punish children who have not reached the age of puberty and discernment yet?
4. Children should not be punished for a mistake that has hurt them and caused them pain.
This is because the pain is a means of disciplining him and this is enough. There is no need to reproach him in this case as this adds to his pain -- especially if he has lost something personal such as a toy that has broken, or he was injured because of touching a hot pot. It is acceptable to explain to him that the reason for what happened is that he did not listen to our instructions and warnings and that he has to bear the consequences of his actions. However, if he is in severe pain, we should postpone this explanation until he is better.
5. Children should not be punished for being naturally active.
Moving around a lot and being active is one of the characteristics of childhood and this is proof of being healthy and of growing naturally. It is not fair to punish the child for this reason or to restrain his movements, but we can guide him and control his behavior.
6. Children should not be punished for problems that they cannot control.
It is not fair to punish a child because he has psychological problems such as fear or jealousy, or if his mental abilities are less than average and his level at school is not good. In such cases, punishment complicates the problem and may result in other psychological problems.
7. Children should not be punished or the punishment should be mitigated if they admit their mistake.
Insisting on meting out punishment despite the fact that the child has admitted his mistake will lead him to avoid admitting any mistake that he makes later on.
8. Punishment should be appropriate.
Children should not be punished severely for a small mistake or go unpunished when they commit a grave mistake.
9. Children should not be punished when they make a mistake for the first time.
This is because children do not know the effects that result from their deeds because of their limited experience, so we should only punish them when they repeat the mistake. We should try reforming them with the methodology of reward then punishment, while directing them to what is right and the alternative, preferred pattern of behavior.
10. Is apology an alternative to punishment?
We should teach children to apologize and encourage them to do so because apologizing is an important factor in the methodology of punishment. However, it comes into play after meting out punishment and not before it. This is because an important part of delivering the moral message behind punishment is making an apology. The child should realize the reason for the punishment, and apologizing should be the practical expression that indicates that the child understands the message.
Apologizing means that the child recognizes his mistake and this is why he is apologizing after paying the price for this mistake -- and this cannot happen if he apologizes before being punished. If he apologizes before being punished, threatening him with being punished would be in vain and he will make the same mistake again.
Finally, we should remember that children usually live under the authority of adults and this is why they set great store by justice in the manner in which they are treated. Thus, dear parent, you should punish your children but without humiliating them; you should strive to preserve mutual respect and love while meting out the punishment. Only then, would the true message of just punishment be delivered.