After reading the same questions over and over again in a slew of online parenting forums about disciplining children for one form of unacceptable behaviour or another, I’ve decided to come forward with my own take on the subject.

Let’s start with a basic definition of the words punishment and consequences, as I’ve found that many people confuse the two and use them in the wrong context.

Punishment:

Encyclopedia Britannica defines punishment as “the infliction of some kind of pain or loss upon a person for a misdeed (i.e., the transgression of a law or command).”

Consequences:

The definition of consequence according to Merriam-Webster is “a conclusion derived through logic” or “something produced by a cause or necessarily following from a set of conditions.”

I could stop here and you would have almost everything you need to contemplate the use of punishment with your children, your students or any other youngsters under your responsibility. Because, yes, your child’s teacher may still be using punishment as a means of putting a swift end to unwanted behaviour.

But let’s delve further into some of the underlying concepts to make them clearer and more tangible.

Punishment, as we’ve seen above, is generally used to deter a child from behaving, or more to the point misbehaving, in a given way. But isn’t that the whole idea, you ask? And it is, to an extent. What you’re trying to achieve is to stop them from doing something that isn’t in line with your values or expectations and to restore balance.

The problem with punishment, however, is that the adult’s involvement ends there. What the child internalizes is that repeating a particular action will likely expose them to a form of physical or mental reprimand, and the guilt and shame that come with it, which will vary depending on the age and developmental stage of the child and the intensity of the punishment. By opting for this deterrent as a parent or significant adult, you are creating an environment of fear and repression that is bound to pave the way to subsequent anxiety and performance issues.

Moreover, punishment does not provide a satisfactory alternative to the original misconduct. Although it teaches the child what they have done wrong, it doesn’t show them how to do it right.

Consequences, on the other hand, explore various attitudes and reactions that are acceptable and unacceptable. They automatically redirect the child toward a more suitable solution and create a new pathway in their young brain so they can understand the natural link between cause and effect. If they are confronted later with a similar situation, they will have something concrete to refer to in their decision-making process.

Now, this is all well and good in theory, but how do you know if the method you are using as a parent or teacher constitutes punishment or consequences? And how do you determine which principles should be applied in order to prioritize consequences as a learning tool?

Start by asking yourself this question: Is there a direct link between what I imposed and what the child did? If the answer is no, your action was a punishment.

The next thing to examine is what you expect and how you hope to modify the end result. What behaviour do you wish to instil? That’s what you should strive to impart. If the conclusion is “derived through logic,” then chances are we’re talking about consequences and not punishment.

Let’s remember, too, that consequences can be positive or negative. To be clear, a negative consequence is not the same thing as a punishment. It simply means that something has been taken away for the purposes of reward or deferral. The following example will explain this in more detail.

Your child puts their boots away and hangs up their coat as soon as they get home from school.

A positive consequence would be more time with you since you don’t have to do these things yourself. A negative consequence would be unpacking their lunchbox for them or letting them do it later, as an acknowledgement for their helpfulness. Taking away this task or giving them special permission to put it off is a reward for good behaviour.

But let’s say your child comes home from school and leaves their coat and boots on the floor. There are positive and negative consequences for this scenario as well.

A positive consequence might be to make them go back and put away their things, as well as their little sister’s coat and boots when she gets home from daycare. A negative consequence could be to take away from their independence by standing beside them until they do what is expected of them, before moving on to something more enjoyable.

Do you see the difference?

Some examples of punishment in this context would be having less playtime, not getting a sticker on a positive reinforcement chart, losing a special privilege on the weekend, having to take a bath before the scheduled time, being sent to bed early and so forth. None of these have a logical connection to the adult’s expectations.

In other words, consequences are the best option for maintaining a positive dynamic conducive to your child’s development and making the learning process more pleasant for both of you.

Food for thought!

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Translated and adapted by Shonda Secord.