Mind your Ps and Cs: Why punishments and consequences miss the mark
Over the years my work both in schools and with parents means that I have heard these words spoken, in one way or another, hundreds if not thousands of times. “What do you think is a suitable punishment?” “But there needs to be a consequence!” and so on.
These words are often used to mean the same thing but I think it’s important to break them down and look at what they actually mean. A quick search for definitions of each threw up the following:
The infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offence
A result or effect, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant
Now I don’t know about you but I’m not sure I favour either of those definitions when thinking about how to respond to a child when they do something I don’t want them to do! Ask yourself the following questions:
When you punish a child, what are you penalising them for? (FYI, it’s more than likely that they’ve done something because they were not fully in control of their actions at the time)
When you impose a consequence, what result are you hoping for?
In my view, where these approaches often miss the mark is that they don’t capitalise on what can be great opportunities to CONNECT WITH and TEACH a child.
I had a very interesting (and lively!) debate with my uncle recently when he gave his 11-year-old son a consequence for hitting out at his 7-year-old brother and making him cry. My uncle took away his mobile phone and was convinced this would go some way to ensuring that the incident (which had occurred previously) would not be repeated.
My uncle felt that, given how attached his son is to his phone, if he experienced the unpleasantness of losing it for a while then he would learn not to hit his brother. The question I had was whether this would actually teach him not to hit his brother, or just teach him to stay away from his brother to avoid getting into a situation where he hits him and then has his phone taken away from him.
The thing with this sort of punishment and imposed, “I’m going to give you the worst consequence I can think of” mentality is that it doesn’t directly lead to positive changes in behaviour, or at least not in the way that you might want it to. As well as this, your child is more likely to learn that relationships are all about power and control, rather than being about love, kindness and cooperation.
The other issue with responding to your child in this way is that it generally comes from a place of you being angry. And dealing with a difficult situation when you’re angry is rarely a good idea. Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t feel angry – anger is at times a perfectly normal response – but it’s important to recognise it and get it under control before responding as otherwise it will be your anger that is doling out a punishment or consequence rather than your normal, capable-of-rational-thinking self.
There are of course times when there will be consequences for a child’s actions that are natural and logical:
For a younger child who repeatedly kicks a football around the house after being told to stop, taking the football away because they’re not showing you they can play sensibly in the house is a natural and logical consequence.
For an older child who keeps coming home from being out with friends later than the agreed time, stopping them from going out the next time they want to because they're not showing you they can be trusted to come home on time is a natural and logical consequence.
The thing to remember is that when your child behaves in a way you don’t like, your responses should be ones that help to develop their social, moral and emotional intelligence rather than ones that shame or scare them into behaving better.
So now, when you find yourself in situation where you’re having to deal with behaviour you don’t like, try asking yourself the following questions:
Did my child do that because they don’t yet have the skills to have done something different? If so, what do they need to learn so that they can do better next time?
Did my child do that out of choice? If so, what will help them to make better choices? Do I need to give more instructions? And if I need to give a consequence then what is it that will teach them the lesson I want them to learn?
Not punishing and not giving harsh consequences is not about being permissive or not having boundaries – children absolutely need adults to use assertive, firm and clear approaches to discipline. But they don't need to be responded to with anger, crticism, threats or shame.
Remember that when children behave in ways that we as adults find difficult, it is usually because they don’t have, or can’t find in that moment, a better way of expressing themselves. And even if you feel like they ‘know better’, this is still an opportunity for connecting and teaching, and doing so with empathy (read this post for more on parenting with empathy).
This topic is a tricky one and one that we get asked about a lot! Do share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below, and look out for future posts as there is definitely a lot more to say on this!