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Punishment and consequence might not sound all that different and people often use the words interchangeably, but they are very different things. Punishment is the infliction of a penalty as retribution for an offense while consequence is the result or the effect of an action. Both of these are tools that parents sometimes consider when trying to discipline or teach their child. While the intention may be the same (to correct behavior), the outcome is pretty different when it comes to our relationships with our children.

A punishment is something that inflicts pain, blame, or shame. The purpose it to make the child suffer (physically or emotionally) with the idea that they won’t repeat the behavior for fear of having to suffer again. There are decades of research about corporal punishment (the pain kind) and the conclusions are that it is harmful and that it doesn’t work. Physical punishment impacts academic achievements and has been associated with slower cognitive development. It has also been associated with mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and use of drugs and alcohol later in life. Young children who are spanked by their parents are more likely to use “aggressive problem solving” (like hitting) in disputes with their friends and siblings. There is also a correlation between physical punishment as a child and dating violence in young adult relationships. And, physical punishment doesn’t even work. Research has shown that difficult behaviors in children decline when parents reduce their use of physical punishments.

Part of parenting is preparing our children to function in society. We do need to help them learn how to control and correct their behavior. Punishments just don’t seem to be all that helpful in achieving this. Consequences, on the other hand, can be a useful tool. When used properly, they can help children learn the impacts of their behavior and choices. The idea is to help children connect their behavior to an outcome, so that they learn make better choices.

Sometimes, punishments can get disguised as a consequence. “The result of you lying is that you don’t get to have dessert” is framed as a consequence, but is actually a punishment. Parents may really be trying to give a consequence, but it can end up feeling like a punishment to a child if certain parts are missing. If the child doesn’t know or understand the expectation, a consequence can feel like a punishment. If the consequence doesn’t relate to their behavior, it can feel like a punishment. If a consequence is delivered harshly, it can feel like a punishment. My partner and I watched a parenting webinar a while back and it had some really helpful tips for implementing consequences so that they don’t feel like punishments.

Their guide was that a consequence should be:

  • Related to the misbehavior: It should feel like a result of their action. You have to put the toy away because you threw the toy is related and makes sense. You get spanked because you threw a toy isn’t related and doesn’t make sense. (Important note: if you can’t think of a consequence that is related to the behavior, it probably isn’t the tool that you should use for that situation.)
  • Reasonable in duration: The purpose is to help your child learn and connect their behavior to an outcome. You’re not trying to make them suffer.
  • Revealed in advance: Telling your child ahead of time clarifies your expectation and gives them the opportunity to make the right choice knowing what is at stake.
  • Repeated back: Having your child repeat the expectation and consequence ensures that the it has been communicated clearly.
  • Respectful: Conversations to discuss or enforce consequences should be respectful. You need to be calm to avoid adding blame or shame, and your child needs to be calm enough to listen and understand what you are trying to communicate. The moment of misbehavior is usually not the right time. If you do have to implement the consequence, it should also be communicated respectfully and kindly. For example, calmly saying, “It looks like you chose to (insert consequence here). I’m sure you’ll make a better choice next time.” is much better than yelling “I told you! You knew the rules. This happens every time. Why can’t you ever make a good choice.

We’ve found these tips – especially the calm conversation in advance and asking them to repeat it back – really helpful. I realized that there were some situations where I had assumed my kids knew our expectations even though I had never clearly explained it. Making a point to have the conversation in advance to communicate the expectation actually solved some of the issues that had been frustrating for everyone. Having my children repeat back was also an important part because it revealed whether I had explained it well enough. For example, I once told my child “I want you to listen when I ask you to put away your toys.” When I asked my child to repeat it back to me, she said, “You want me to listen.” I should have said, “I want you to put away your toys when I ask you to.” In most cases, clearly communicating our expectation in advance and giving a gentle reminder in the moment have kept us from having to implement many consequences.

I do want my kids to learn appropriate behavior, but I definitely don’t want to hurt them or make them afraid of me in the process. This is one of the tools that we find helpful. Maybe you are using punishments and finding that it isn’t working or maybe making some adjustments to the way you are using consequences will make them more effective. Either way, I hope that these tips might be helpful!