How is giving kids consequences different from punishing them?
Let’s be honest: isn’t a “consequence” really just a politically-correct term for “punishment?”
To some parents, yes. But here’s how I see the (often subtle) distinction between consequences and punishment. Getting clear on the difference has changed the dynamics in my family.
I started thinking about consequences vs. punishment while I was writing about holding older kids accountable for doing their chores.
We had to agree on a consequence for forgetting. This is not the same as asking a kid how he thinks he should be punished for blatant misbehavior. The consequence was a logical tool to help my kids remember — not a punishment for forgetting. It’s an important distinction because it keeps the focus squarely on their responsibility. [Read the full post]
Shifting the attention to their behavior
When I punish my kids, their attention stays focused on me. You’re mean! and You’re so unfair! and What’s your problem? Even when they know they’ve done something wrong, they’re so fixated on the punishment they have trouble seeing past it to the cause. Lots of arguing; little, if any, learning.
(Needless to say, this suuuuucks.)
But when my kids experience the consequences of their behavior, they are more likely to think about how they could have done things differently. The conversation has a decidedly different tone. I do less enforcing, and more observing.
I’m not saying there’s zero arguing and it’s all calm and pleasant, but we can usually come away with a plan for how things will go differently the next time.
What consequences look like in my family
Here’s an example of a consequence.
My daughter brings a hot lunch to school every day in an insulated container. When she comes home from school, one of her chores is to empty and hang her lunch bag, rinse out the container, and put it in the dishwasher. (Bless you, Thermos FOOGO, for being dishwasher-safe).
She used to forget to do this almost every day.
I used to punish her (mostly by yelling), which left us both feeling frustrated and did nothing to improve the situation. Now, the consequence for forgetting to clean her lunch container is eating lunch in the school cafeteria the next day. She’s not crazy about cafeteria food so now she’s much more likely to remember. It took a while, but she hardly ever forgets now.
(Why not just buy another Thermos and rotate them? I did, but she lost the other one the second week of school. I gave her the choice to replace it with her allowance — another consequence — but she chose go this route.)
Sometimes it’s a matter of tone
Sometimes the difference between a consequence and a punishment is the tone in which it’s communicated.
Me: “If you don’t wash your Thermos, I won’t make your lunch and you’ll have to eat gross school lunch!”
Her internal response: You know how much I hate school lunch! I’ll be hungry all day at school! That’s so mean!
Me: “I’m really busy on school mornings helping you guys get ready. When you don’t wash your Thermos, it throws off my timing and I run late. So I think it’s fair that on days when there’s no clean Thermos, you’ll buy lunch in the cafeteria.”
Her internal response: I’m not crazy about school lunch, but I can see your point.
Consequences can be positive or negative
Can consequences be positive? Is a positive consequence the same as a reward? In Punished By Rewards, Alfie Kohn says it is — anything kids get as the result of doing something inevitably blunts their learning and erodes their intrinsic motivation.
But I don’t think it’s so black-and-white. While I agree that rewards can complicate matters (think: the kid who won’t use the potty unless he’s promised an M&M), I can think of many other times positive consequences drive a life lesson home.
My son earns pocket money by doing odd jobs in the neighborhood. Positive consequences for a job well done: money, getting rehired, neighborhood goodwill and respect. Negative consequences for lack of responsibility or quality: dwindling income, awkward interactions with “hiring” neighbors. The maturity and experience he’s gained from both his successes and failures is priceless.
I realize that payment for neighborhood jobs isn’t the same as parent-selected consequences. But what happens at home is training for future independence. It all goes into the same “growing up” bucket.
Punishment has its place
If my kid takes his cell phone out while we’re eating, he loses it for the rest of the evening. The punishment is quick, straightforward, and does its job. We’ve discussed the importance of this rule many times, so at this point, if someone chooses to break the rule, they know what will happen.
What do you think?
Has your approach to consequences vs. punishment changed as your kids have gotten older? (Ours has — the distinction made no sense to my kids when they were younger.) Do you think I have a point, or is this just an exercise in parenting semantics?
Standard disclaimer on all of my advice: You know yourself and your family best. What works for me may not be right for you. I offer my opinion in the hope it helps, but if it misses the mark, at least we have something to talk about. Leave a comment!