When you first discovered positive parenting, one of the first things you likely discovered is that punishments are discouraged. “But,” you thought, “how am I supposed to get my kids to behave if there’s no consequences for their misbehavior? How will they ever learn?”
It’s a common question and misunderstanding among parents who practice different methods of parenting. It’s assumed that because there are no punishments, there is no discipline.
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But that couldn’t be further from the truth! The thing you need to understand is that punishments and consequences are not interchangeable words in the positive parenting world.
These concepts are vastly different. We’ll discuss the difference between punishment and consequences as well as how discipline is used by positive parents to teach their children how to behave appropriately.
We’ll also discover the difference between natural and logical consequences and learn about the five essentials for effective and healthy discipline.
First: Understanding How Positive Parents Discipline
Before we can truly discuss the differences between punishments and consequences, it’s important to understand how discipline works for positive parents.
Many would argue that it’s merely semantics. Discipline and punishment and consequences are all different ways to say the same thing in many circles.
But in order to adequately explain how positive parenting is different, and preferred over other methods, we have to understand what we mean when we say these words.
Punishments are typically used in anger. It’s a form of retaliation, retribution, revenge. Your child didn’t do what you wanted them to and so you punish them – spank them, put them in time out, chastise and scold them causing shame and guilt.
The goal of a punishment is to change behavior using fear and pain. But there’s nothing beyond that. The child is left feeling hopeless, confused, sad, and hurt.
Positive discipline, on the other hand, is intended to teach and guide. Yes, there are consequences involved in this discipline. Yes, those consequences are usually unpleasant at the time.
But the goal of discipline isn’t to cause pain and suffering. Rather, the consequences involved in positive discipline are used as a means to help your child learn a better way to behave in the future.
When a parent reacts out of anger and controls behavior using fear, shame, and guilt – that is punishment. And it accomplishes almost nothing good in the long run.
However, when a parent can respond with love, empathy, and grace they can teach and guide their child towards better choices using positive discipline.
When we impose punishments on our children, the best we can hope for is a temporary change of behavior. But at what cost? Long term, your child’s self-esteem and confidence suffer. Your relationship with your child will also be damaged.
Studies have shown, as well, that punishments may actually cause behavior to worsen over time. This is because your child learns to rebel against the punishment and also lacks the skills to regulate their emotions and make wise choices on their own.
They become 100% dependent on someone else managing their behavior because they don’t know how.
But when positive discipline is used effectively, children learn emotional regulation, coping skills, behavior management, and so much more. They learn why behaving a certain way is acceptable or not.
They understand how to respond when they are feeling angry or hurt or scared.
Instead of lashing out when difficult feelings come, they learn to work through those difficult feelings in healthy ways that allow them to grow as a person without causing damage to other people or things.
Using Consequences Effectively
As we’ve seen, consequences and punishments are not interchangeable terms. While punishment could certainly be considered a consequence of inappropriate or “bad” behavior, not all consequences are punishments.
So what is a punishment then? And what’s a consequence? How do you differentiate the two?
We’ve already touched a little on punishments. Basically, a punishment is a reaction by an authority figure in response to a behavior they believe is incorrect or inappropriate, usually this reaction is out of anger or spite.
They are intended to cause pain or discomfort in the life of the child and rarely, if ever, give any information about how to do better in the future.
Often the child is left feeling fear, shame, and guilt but has little understanding of what exactly they did wrong or how to avoid repeating the same mistake again.
Punishments are typically arbitrary and have little to no connection to the perceived wrongdoing. Most of the time, they are simply a means to try to control a situation.
The parent, in a moment of anger or frustration, will give a punishment in order to put a stop to an unwanted behavior or to try to manipulate the child into doing what the parent wants.
This is almost always due to the parent feeling a loss of control and trying to assert their authority over the child. This is usually done with very little, if any, consideration for the needs, abilities, understanding, or feelings of the child
A child who is acting out may receive a spanking or be sent to time out. This is a reaction intended to stop the child’s behavior in the current moment.
But the problem is that the behavior isn’t really the issue. The behavior is an indication of something else going on.
Perhaps the child is tired or they have a lot of energy that they don’t know how to release.
But the parent who punishes the child for acting out isn’t searching for the reason behind the behavior. They’re just trying to stop the behavior right now.
This may be effective in the short term. The child may very well calm down temporarily and stop acting out. But because the underlying issue was not dealt with, you can bet that the problem will resurface, and it will be a bigger problem when it does.
When it comes back, the child will be more tired or more energetic or more fill-in-the-blank. Plus they will have buried anger, resentment, fear, etc from being punished. This will likely become an endless and ever-escalating cycle.
Understanding Why Punishments Don’t Work
Imagine your preschooler is running through the house, knocking things over, screaming, and just generally acting completely crazy.
His endless energy and destructiveness is really wearing you down and you’ve had enough. You yell at him to stop and send him to time out in his room when he doesn’t listen.
After a few minutes, you go in to talk to him and you make him explain to you why you made him go to time out. He tells you it’s because he was running and acting crazy.
You excuse him from time out satisfied that he is calm and understands why he was sent to time out.
But is the problem really solved?
When you sent him to his room, you were angry. You yelled and you spoke in a hateful tone.
So the first problem is that your child may have interpreted that to mean that there is a problem with him rather than with his behavior.
The second problem is that, while the behavior may have been stopped for now, it will likely repeat in the future, perhaps with even stronger punishments – because, after all, he should know better, right?
However, he actually doesn’t know better. He may very well understand that he shouldn’t run in the house or knock things over or be destructive.
But even though he understands that, his body’s need to release energy compels him to do so. If he is not given a healthy and acceptable way to release that energy, he will instinctively revert back to whatever behavior works to get that energy out.
It’s not so much a matter of knowing what is and isn’t allowed, but more so about the need to respond to his body’s impulses.
He isn’t trying to be “bad” or break the rules. He’s just meeting a need in the only way he knows how. Punishing him for that doesn’t change anything.
When we discuss consequences here, we are referring to the result of an action. That’s it. For every choice a person makes, there is always a consequence. Sometime it’s good and sometimes not so good. It’s these consequences – the results of our actions – that teach and guide us in life.
As positive parents, we use the same concept to help teach and guide our children. There are two types of consequences positive parents use.
Natural consequences are the results that happen naturally from our choices. There is no need for any kind of intervention from a parent or other person to enforce the consequence. It just happens.
A child who refuses to wear a coat will be cold when they go outside. A child who doesn’t eat their dinner will be hungry. A child who stays up too late playing video games will be tired the next day.
Many times, these natural consequences will be enough to guide your child to make a better choice the next time. But sometimes it isn’t enough or there isn’t a clear natural consequence for a behavior, and that’s where logical consequences come in.
When natural consequences aren’t enough or there is no clear natural consequence for your child’s behavior, it is sometimes necessary to enforce some sort of boundary or limit by way of a logical consequence.
The child’s choice, in this case, will result in a parent enforced outcome. For instance, if your child stays up too late playing video games and struggles to get up in time for school, you may decide that the video games need to be moved out of their room or that all electronic devices must be turned off and stored by a certain time each night.
For a younger child, a logical consequence may look like putting away toys that are being thrown or not allowing drinks in the living room because they keep getting spilled.
Logical consequences are enforced by an authority figure and do not happen naturally.
So…How Is That Different Than Punishment?
Maybe you’re thinking, “Ok, I get natural consequences. But how are logical consequences any different than punishments?”
That’s a great question!
In some respects punishments and logical consequences could appear very similar on the surface. In both instances, an authority figure is imposing some sort of restriction or requirement in response to an action taken (or not taken) by the child.
The primary difference between the two lies in how you enforce the restriction or requirement.
While punishment is typically done in the moment, has little forethought and often lacks a true teaching moment, logical consequences have several elements that differentiate them from punishments.
The 5 R’s Of Logical Consequences
- It must be related to the offense. Instead of grounding your child from TV for a week because they failed their math test (which has no logical connection), you might, instead, help your child implement a better study routine.
If your toddler is having a meltdown, rather than sending them to time out to think about their actions, you might instead sit with them in a calm and private space and help them work through their emotions (which they’re not developmentally capable of regulating on their own).
- It must be respectful. A good consequence considers the needs and emotions of the child being corrected. When we react out of anger, we are simply projecting our own feelings onto our child.
However, if we can take a moment to step back and consider their perspective and feelings for a moment, we will be much more capable to respond in a way that helps them work through their struggle in a productive and healthy manner.
A child who feels shame, guilt, and fear is a child who will shut down and fail to learn self-regulation or appropriate emotional health. But a child who is given the space, support, and tools to identify and work through their struggles and feelings will grow into an emotionally healthy and functional adult.
- It must be reasonable. A logical consequence needs to match the severity of the offense. Taking away all of your child’s toys because they didn’t pick up when you asked is probably a bit too extreme and most likely won’t have the effect you intend.
A more reasonable consequence would perhaps be to limit the number of toys that can be out at one time or to set up a toy rotation with the help of your child so there aren’t as many toys available at one time.
- It must be relevant. The consequence should be timely to the offense. It doesn’t make sense to impose a consequence for an offense that happened two weeks ago.
Likewise, you must consider the age of your child and their ability to make the connection between the offense and the consequence. It may be reasonable to have your 15 year old miss a party next weekend because they missed curfew this weekend.
When you’re dealing with a three year old, though, the consequence needs to be more immediate. They aren’t likely to remember and make the connection that the consequence of no dessert after dinner is related to taking cookies without asking earlier that morning.
- There must be realignment. Consequences always include an element of teaching and correcting. Rather than just temporarily stopping an undesirable behavior, consequences seek to offer a better option moving forward.
There must always be a discussion before, during, and after the offense and the resulting consequence. Without this step, the consequence becomes ineffective. It’s important to help your child understand the expected behavior and the reasons behind it as much as possible.
When your child understands not only what is expected of them, but why it’s expected, they are much more capable of meeting those expectations. They have been armed with the tools they need to make informed and responsible decisions.
Putting Logical Consequences Into Action
It might be easy now to see the difference between punishments and consequences and why those differences are important. But putting it into practice isn’t always quite as easy.
In the midst of a battle, it can be far too easy to slip back into the habit of punishing. Sometimes we really do just want the behavior to stop right now and we’re not thinking about long term opportunities for growth.
But it’s so important to keep in mind that our goal as parents is to raise healthy, responsible, capable, amazing adults. Right? So here are a few tips to help you successfully implement logical consequences in your family.
Tip One: Set The Expectations Ahead Of Time
In order to effectively implement any kind of discipline, your child needs to understand beforehand what is actually expected of him. After all, he can’t really be held accountable for expectations he didn’t know about or didn’t fully understand.
Sit down together with your family and decide what values and expectations are most important to you.
Set some reasonable limits, keeping in mind the abilities and understanding of your child. Obviously the expectations for a preschooler will be much different than the expectations for a teenager.
Tip Two: Keep The Conversation Going
Of course, the limits and boundaries will evolve over time as new experiences and opportunities come up and as your child gets older and has different interests, etc.
Keep the conversation open and ongoing and make sure everyone understands that the limits and boundaries are always up for reconsideration or negotiation – whether that means adding more restrictions or allowing more freedom.
You will never be able to think of every single situation that could possibly come up. Naturally, there will be things that happen that you haven’t planned for. In those instances, it’s important to remember not to react out of anger or throw out some arbitrary punishment.
When a new situation occurs, it’s an opportunity to engage in conversation and work with your child to decide on a related, respectful, reasonable, and relevant consequence that provides opportunity for realignment.
Tip Three: Give Them The Choice
One of the best and easiest ways to keep the peace and avoid power struggles or angry outbursts is to put the power back into your child’s hands.
When you notice a situation you’re unhappy with, you may feel like you need to immediately step in and enforce some sort of consequence.
Instead, let your child know what you expect from them and then give them the choice about what they want to do with that information.
Do not give a consequence immediately. Instead, take the opportunity to discuss the expectation and decide together on a consequence moving forward.
This can be really difficult at first, especially for parents who’ve been used to handing out punishments in the past.
Here’s what this might look like in your family…
You ask your son to turn off his video games and come eat dinner. He ignores you and continues playing.
Your initial inclination is to go shut off the TV yourself or unplug the video game and say something like, “I said it’s time for dinner!” (of course in the most stern mom voice you can muster).
But you don’t react. Your son misses dinner because they didn’t listen to you and you feel frustrated and upset by this. This has been an ongoing issue for several days now and you know it needs to be handled, but you decide to sleep on it.
Your instincts tell you that he should be grounded. His video games should be taken away. You must step in an assert your power, take back control, right? But you stop yourself.
The next day (or maybe even a couple days later), when everything is calm and you and your son are both in a good mood, you decide to bring it up.
You tell him that you’re feeling really frustrated because you feel like he’s not listening to you. You explain that eating together every night is an expectation in your family that isn’t currently being met.
He apologizes and promises it won’t happen again. Which is great! But you want to start enforcing some boundaries around this issue to help keep him accountable to that promise.
So, after some discussion, the two of your agree that in the future you’ll give him a five minute warning so he can finish up and save the game. But after the five minutes if he still refuses to turn it off, the video games will be confiscated for a period of time.
Then the next time you ask him to turn off the game, he has a choice to make. He knows the options. He can finish up and turn it off and everything will be fine.
Or he can ignore your request and keep playing and his video games will be confiscated.
He can’t hold you responsible because he knew the consequences of his actions ahead of time and chose to break the limits he had agreed to. If he fights you one it, you can simply remind him that he made the choice.
Confiscating the video games for failure to follow through on the agreed upon limits is related, it’s respectful (because you’re not reacting out of anger or spite – he’s making an informed decision that he agreed to), it’s reasonable, it’s relevant, and it leaves room for realignment – for him to know the expectations and make better choices in the future.
There is no judgement. There’s no condemnation. There’s no shame or guilt or fear. It’s simply a choice that was made and your son now has the opportunity to make a better choice the next time!
While punishments can stop unwanted behavior temporarily, they have been shown to be ineffective and potentially harmful to your child’s long term emotional wellbeing, ability to regulate their behavior and emotions, and your relationship with them.
Logical consequences, when used appropriately, help your child learn to change their behavior through guidance and understanding without the negative effects that punishment can have on their development.
Logical consequences used in their intended manner are related to the offense, are respectful, are reasonable, are relevant, and provide opportunity to help your child realign with appropriate behaviors and thought patterns.
While punishments may seem like a good way to immediately manage unfavorable behavior, logical consequences are a far better alternative for long term education and retention of appropriate behavior.