The Solution to Punishment

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iStock_000005499751Small“Want to know a dirty, little secret about punishment? It doesn’t work.” (L.R. Knost)

There is often a lot of confusion in parent’s minds when they read a statement like the one above. When I re-posted the article I took this quote from, I instantly had questions from friends who agreed with the concept but were uncertain about “HOW to address the underlying issues” in their homes without using punishment.

One friend posted, “In our house (and I’m sure others) we run into a problem with basic obedience, doing what they’ve been asked the first time and without a big huff and puff about it. I don’t expect them to be excited to clean up toys, or whatever the task is, but the moans and groans and excuses become exhausting.”

No matter if we have made clear expectations through elaborate chore charts, established good relationships with our children, or taught our children the value of hard work, there will still be instances where they simply disobey, whine, and complain.

In moments like these, of basic obedience, it’s important to note that punishment is not the same as disciplining through consequences. When we punish our motive is often control rather than influence. Immediate pain and subsequent compliance becomes the goal. When we seek to discipline, we seek to influence in positive ways, we seek to teach and allow them to grow with time.

Discipline and Consequences

Part of the teaching in discipline is to help our children learn that consequences are a natural part of life; that there are correlations between cause and effect. We need to teach our children to be accountable for their choices and help them recognize that there are tradeoffs or consequences for every choice they make, both good and bad.

When teaching consequences to children it’s important to grab hold of the natural consequences that happen in life instead of denying our children of natural consequences and punishing them with our own imposed consequences.

For example, a natural consequence to making a mess is cleaning it up, not yelling, spanking, grounding, or degrading remarks. A natural consequence of ignoring chores or work is postponement of unearned free time, entertainment, or meals. A natural consequence of undone homework is bad grades and embarrassment. A natural consequence of hurting someone is to be separated from them or others. A natural consequence of taking something that isn’t yours or breaking something, is to give it back or replace it.

The Difference Between Punishment and Consequences

The following story helps illustrate the concept of punishment verses natural consequences: If a child touches a hot stove, the consequence is that it will burn them. The stove was not punishing them, the burn is simply the consequence of touching the heat. Punishment would be to then whack their hand with a ruler or scold them to inflict further pain. What would be the point of that? We often say punishment is to “teach them a lesson,” but wouldn’t it make better sense to teach them of the dangers and consequences of the hot stove during the good times (before it happened) and then if they do touch the stove, to then empathize and comfort them and teach them ways to heal the painful consequence of their action?

From this example we see that consequences and punishment are not the same and yet we can create consequences that are indeed punishments by imposing them on top of the natural, rational and/or logical consequences that already exist. As with our example, the extra whack with the ruler or scolding only teaches the child cruelty and lack of empathy. It may even confuse them as to where the pain came from and cause them to repeat the behavior instead of changing it.

Some actions have very concrete, natural consequences attached to them like the example above, while other actions consequences are less concrete. When we impose consequences, they should be rational and reasonably related to the offense and be driven by the motive to connect and teach. Not by the motive to control, inflict pain, or to get even.

Ultimately, consequences are not the only thing we use to teach or discipline our children. A large bulk of our discipline happens through our everyday interaction and relationship with our child. We teach throughout the cycles of every day and every interaction, through our connection and love, but consequences are an often misunderstood principle that can help us differentiate and understand how to discipline in positive ways, free of punishment and anger, even when our child’s behavior is not ideal.

If we stop punishing and chose instead to use our children’s disobedience as a teaching opportunity, we can simply follow through with and enforce natural, clear, and predetermined consequences. We can then empathize with them when they are unhappy with the outcome of their choices. We can start asking questions like, “How can I help you to get the consequences that you would like?” We can seek to heal the burn and teach them ways to keep from burning themselves again, instead of becoming the enemy.

Question: What ways do you teach your children consequences without inflicting punishment?

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