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The difference between consequences and punishments




You’ll often find those of us who are parent coaches and child therapists posting on social media about gentle parenting, not yelling, using empathy to parent, and above all, using consequences instead of punishments. But most of us aren’t taking the time to talk about the difference between the two. Many people use them interchangeably. However, there is an important difference. But first, we need to talk about the purpose of both, which is discipline.


When we look at the word “discipline,” it comes from the word “disciple”. When someone is your disciple, you are responsible for teaching them. So as parents, when we are “disciplining” our purpose is actually to teach. With this in mind, it changes the way we think about punishments and consequences.


A punishment is defined by Merriam-Webster “to impose penalty on for a fault, offense, or violation and to inflict a penalty in retribution or retaliation.” This directly conflicts with the idea of teaching your kids. Often the intention of a punishment, whether the parent is aware of it or not, is to harm, shame, or coerce cooperation, none of which teach the lesson you are likely trying to teach. Think about the last time your child misbehaved. How did you handle the situation? Did you stay calm and help your child learn a lesson about why their behavior needs to change? Or did you become frustrated, or even angry?





The narrative most parents give is somewhere along the lines of, “I’m doing this so they learn not to do it again.” In extreme cases, parents will even use this thought process to justify physical or emotional abuse. But that is exactly the issue with punishments. Emotional (withholding words of affirmation or love, gaslighting, shaming, belittling…) or physical harm does not actually teach the lesson you intend it to. It teaches not to repeat the offense in front of the punisher out of fear, but not how to make choices based on their values. A punishment becomes a punishment when the parent’s body language, tone, and facial expressions conveys shame or disgust. A parent is using a punishment, instead of consequences, when the parent is angry and reacting to the situation and not responding intentionally, thoughtfully, and with love. Now, let’s look at consequences.




Most people tend to think of consequences as negative reactions to an event. However, a consequence is simply any response, good or bad, that happens after an event. Consequences can be negative, like learning to ride a bike and falling, scraping your knee. Alternatively, consequences can be positive, like learning to ride a bike and succeeding! Consequences can also be imposed, like a teen losing their phone for not listening (negative) or a teen getting to buy something they have wanted after working to earn the money (positive). However, natural consequences are ideal. I recommend using natural consequences as often as possible. For example, a child forgetting their homework and receiving a zero would be a natural and negative consequence. A teenager winning a medal after working hard at a new sport is a natural and positive consequence. The trick is learning how to spot when you, the parent, are falling into punishment or using consequences intentionally. Let’s look at some examples. Try to guess which scenario is using consequences rather than punishment.


Scene: Your 3-year-old is waving a plastic sword near you and getting dangerously close to whacking you. (This actually happened to me at the time of writing this.) You set a limit that the sword is not for making contact with your body.





Scenario 1: Your child whacks you with the sword, you snatch it up, and yell, “I told you not to hit me with that sword. How could you be so careless? Now you don’t get the sword because you couldn’t listen! It’s going in the trash!”


Scenario 2: Your child whacks you with the sword. You kneel down and in a calm voice say, “You are having so much fun with that sword. My body is not for hitting with the sword. If you choose to hit me with it again, the sword will need to take a break. If you choose not to hit me with the sword, you choose to keep playing with it.” If your child hits you again, you say, “You are having so much fun and sometimes it’s hard to control your body. Since you hit me with the sword again, it is going to take a time out. You can have it back later and try again.”


If you guess scenario 2, you are right! This is a consequence, not a punishment. The parent stayed calm and imposed a consequence to teach a lesson with kindness and compassion. You also took the time to reflect their feeling. The point was to help the child learn self-regulation, not to hurt them emotionally or physically. There was no name calling or labeling. No snatching or anger. There was simply the follow through of the consequences that were previously warned about. Let’s look at an example with an older child.





Scene: Your self-driving 16-year-old walks into the house past curfew for the second day in a row and has the audacity to ask to use the car again tomorrow night.


Scenario 1: You're patiently waiting (after you have made sure that they are safe) and as they walk in they ask if they can use the car again tomorrow. You reply, “No. You have been late two days in a row now and I feel very worried about you when you are late. I need a break from feeling worried, so you may not go out with your friends tomorrow.”


Scenario 2: You are standing there angrily, with your arms crossed. As soon as your kiddo walks through the door you say, “You’ve been late 2 nights in a row! There is no way you are getting to use that car again. I mean how hard is it to just come home on time?! It should be simple. Give me those keys. You’re grounded!”


If you guessed scenario 1, you're correct again! In this example, we assume that the rules have already been established about curfew and what would happen if curfew was broken. The parent is being calm, simply holding the boundary: broken curfew, no car.


Parenting can be hard; in my opinion, it’s the hardest job in the world. And quite honestly, no one gives you a manual or tells you how to parent. We are all just kind of winging it or copying what we saw our parents do. So if you found this blog eye opening, you might be feeling guilty. That’s okay. Focus on one thing you want to change at a time, and go from there. And of course, if you need extra help, feel free to reach out to WellNest! We are happy to help you, whether you have parenting needs or your kiddo needs someone to talk to!



References:

Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (2023). How to talk so teens will listen & listen so teens will talk. Lagom.



Siegel, D. J. (2017). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. Langara College.


Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2020). The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes who Our Kids Become and how Their Brains Get Wired. Scribe Publications.


Schuler, K. (2011). Jai Institue For Parenting Workbook.


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