As parents, we know the importance of parenting from our principles, things like teaching our children to own up to their actions and face the fallout when they make poor choices.
At Empowering Parents, our parenting programs stress the importance of using effective consequences as opposed to using punishments.
But what, exactly, is the difference between a consequence and a punishment? And why does it matter so much?
A punishment is retribution (or vengeance) for a wrongful act. Punishment says to your child: you’d better think like me, or else. If you don’t, I will make you pay (or suffer) until you make the choice I want you to make. A punishment doesn’t respect the child’s right to make a decision, even if that decision is a poor one.
Punishments arise out of anger and fear and often look like a withdrawal of love in order to get the child to do what you want them to do. This approach doesn’t help kids develop new ways of taking responsibility for their behavior. It can also be destructive to the relationship.
Consequences are the outcomes that result from one’s behavior. There are generally two types of consequences: (1) natural, and (2) logical. And both are important when it comes to your child.
Natural consequences are behavior outcomes that are not necessarily planned by anyone, they just happen naturally. Here are some examples of natural consequences:
Logical consequences are behavior outcomes that are specifically planned by parents and other adults. Here are some examples of logical consequences:
Whether they are natural or logical, consequences help us all to learn and grow. When kids experience the results of their actions, they learn to make better choices and improve their behaviors. In short, consequences = learning.
Consequences communicate to your child that their behavior is their choice and their responsibility. Your responsibility is to help them learn how to face the consequences and how to make better decisions in the future.
Importantly, a consequence respects the child’s right to make a decision, even if it’s not a good one. It’s not a withdrawal of love or a rejection. It’s a matter-of-fact learning experience in which you maintain a better relationship with your child as you hold him accountable.
Consequences also give us the chance to parent from our principles instead of from a place of frustration, anger, or disappointment.
Let’s look at a common situation to illustrate how giving a consequence is different from giving a punishment. The difference is important even though it can be subtle at times.
Let’s say your 13-year-old is out with his friends for the day and doesn’t call to check-in, which you asked him to do. You are angry and you ground him for a week. Is this a consequence or a punishment?
Yes, grounding him might have taught him that when you don’t act responsibly you can lose privileges. But what it didn’t do is give him an opportunity to practice being more responsible. In that sense, grounding is a punishment. It doesn’t teach in any way. He doesn’t have a chance to earn his privileges back.
So what would an appropriate consequence look like in this situation? First, ask yourself: What is it that I want him to learn?
You probably want him to learn to remember to call to check-in with you. A consequence in this situation could be that he is only allowed to go out with friends for an hour next time. And during that time he must remember to call you to let you know where he is. If he does this successfully, then he can return to going out for longer periods of time. If he forgets again then his time with his friends is restricted again.
What he’s learning is that privileges (going out with friends) comes with responsibility (calling to check-in). What he’s getting is the chance to practice and demonstrate to you that he can be trusted to do as he’s supposed to.
Of course, consequences gives your child the option to continue his bad behavior. He may accept, for a time anyway, the bad consequences of his actions. Ultimately, his behavior is up to him, which is a hard fact for many parents to accept. But, just remember that your job is to consistently hold him accountable through consequences. The rest is up to your child.
When you are feeling exasperated with your child’s bad decisions you may want to use increasingly extreme consequences, you may attempt to control him through anger or distance, or you may want to give up altogether. Resist the temptation. Just be consistent and be sure to always follow through with the consequence.
It can help to keep in mind the underlying reason why you are trying so hard—you genuinely want to help guide your child. And by showing your child what they can expect in life when they make poor choices, the consequences are actually working even if it seems like they aren’t.
Related content: Kids Who Ignore Consequences: 10 Ways to Make Them Stick
The parents who I have worked with have found the following 6 tips helpful in making their consequences effective.
In order to provide consequences that help your child learn, take your time thinking it through. Tell your child you will get back to him or her as to what the consequence will be. Think about what it is that you hope he or she will learn. What is your goal?
You can’t make your child change, but you can make sure you consistently provide consequences when you see him or her making poor choices. Stick to it, despite any opposition, unhappiness or lack of noticeable change in behavior.
Stay focused on you doing your job and let your child do his or hers. Your job is to guide your child by providing reasonable and realistic consequences. Your child’s job is to decide how he or she will respond to what you provide and expect.
Think of providing consequences like conducting a business deal. It’s about facts, not emotions. Don’t take their behavior personally, which is hard, I know. Yelling, cajoling, criticizing, and nagging won’t work over the long run and will only get you more frustrated and upset. Focus on how you are going to behave, no matter how they act.
When we accept that we can’t make our children behave a certain way, we actually have a greater chance of successfully influencing their behavior. When our children don’t have to use their energy to get us off their back, they will have a clearer mind, less anxiety and be better able to make reasonable decisions. Remember that the consequences that you consistently hand them will help positively shape them.
Taking an “I” position is better than taking a “You” position when it comes to providing consequences. Children respond better when they know where their parents stand on an issue rather than when they are being bossed. For example, saying “I will not listen when you speak to me like that” delivers a clearer message about what is acceptable than “You had better stop speaking to me like that.”
Punishments send a message to children that sound like this: “If you think for yourself and not like me, you will have a price to pay.” This, of course, contradicts what most parents actually want for their children, which is to raise them to be independent and think for themselves.
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.
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