Punishments, Consequences, and Limits: Part 1 of 2

Are they different words for the same thing? Does it even matter as long as children behave the way they’re supposed to? Let’s dive into this hotly debated topic and see if we can parse out the differences, the benefits, and the downsides.

First, I’d like to talk a bit about discipline. This term originated in Latin as “disciplina” and it simply meant instruction. Give a word a few centuries of cultural influence and you end up with a word that came to mean things like suffering, scourging, and chastisement in the late Middle Ages. If you don’t know what scourging means, beware because it’s nasty. It was used as a form of corporal punishment centuries ago (and, unfortunately, it’s still used in some areas of the world). A whip would be fashioned with knots or barbs to inflict the most damage possible on a person’s flesh and then the lashing would begin, mostly across the back, until the perpetrator was left bloodied and exhausted. Many people succumbed to their wounds, because they lacked the medicines they needed to treat and repair the torn flesh.

Given that trajectory, it makes sense that discipline is used today primarily to refer to physical punishment, in the context of child rearing. The steps we took to get from the intellectual pursuits of ancient Romans to the dark and brutal torture of the Middle Ages would be an interesting study. For our purposes at the moment, I want you to understand that there is a spectrum of understanding when it comes to the word discipline and that Peaceful Dad and I land way over on the side of “instruction.”

While I can’t hope to encapsulate the entire meaning of these words in such brief statements, these self-penned working definitions will help you understand the distinctions I’ll be making later on.

  • Punishment: A negative, arbitrary ramification determined by a parent/caregiver and applied in an effort to correct unwanted behavior.
  • Consequence: A negative ramification stemming from a child’s action that occurs either without the influence of a parent/caregiver (i.e. “natural” consequence) or with the influence of a parent/caregiver in direct connection to the infraction (i.e. “logical” consequence).
  • Limit: A boundary defined by culture and/or family in the interest of safety, socialization, or education.

Punishments

Parents punish because it works. It stops the behavior in the moment and shuts the child down, so the nuisance is gone. However, punishment doesn’t work the way most people think it does.

We know that the logic center in human brains doesn’t fully form until around age 25 and that regularly coaching kids on how to reason through problems is a crucial part of teaching their brains how to think logically. However, punishment does not rely on logic. It relies on fear and control to coerce children into compliance. Children may run away, fight back, shut down, submit, cry, or become overwhelmingly exhausted when faced with punishment, especially physical punishment. You might find it interesting that these are all instinctive survival responses to stress that we all have, children and adults alike. And, if these children are not reasoning through their experiences, they may be falling back on innate self-preservation measures.

Punishment is effective beyond the immediate moment of infraction only when the enforcer is present and the punishment is severe enough to elicit strong fear. This is why, sadly, punishment can slip easily into abuse when the diminishing returns lead to escalation. Punishment is demoralizing and hurtful from the child’s perspective.

Consequences

Many parents shun punishments but desire a method of demonstrating to children that their behavior is unacceptable. Natural consequences can be a fantastic teacher. Pull the cat’s tail and you’ll get scratched. It doesn’t take a parent intervening to make that happen. Natural consequences are automatic and often unavoidable.

Children learn a great deal from natural consequences as they form relationships. When children are mean to their friends, their friends may not want to play with them anymore. That’s a natural consequence that leaves space for the child to learn how to repair a friendship. Natural consequences can be very useful, but they can also act as punishments.

Sometimes parents let natural consequences happen, knowing their child will be hurt. They want to “teach the child a lesson” (which is a surefire sign that indirect punishment is taking place). If you tell your child not to touch a hot burner on the stove and the child reaches for it, you have two choices: let the child be burned or intervene. One is cruel and the other is educational. Natural consequences don’t have to take full effect for a child to learn.

Logical consequences are selected by parents and may involve input from the child. In that sense, they are preferable to punishment. They are intended to be directly related to the unwanted behavior. For instance, a logical consequences for breaking a rule about running through the house and destroying a family heirloom might be helping to clean up the pieces and then having a time out to sit and chill.

Consequences can be effective and they can also be abused. To complicate matters further, you run into the trouble of children not recognizing the difference between a punishment and a consequence, which defeats the purpose of making the distinction in the first place.

Limits

Limits are respectful boundaries that allow all parties to be in relationship with each other and know what the guidelines are. It is possible to enforce a limit without adding on a punishment or a consequence. Limits define expectations and parents can then walk their children through how to appreciate and abide by that expectation.

The difficulty remains in terms of the child’s interpretation of a limit or a consequence. It may feel very much like a punishment to be reminded of a limit. That’s why it’s important to give the child power over the situation. Giving children power can feel foreign in a culture that diminishes the autonomy of kids, but hear me out.

Dr. Laura Markham has an absolutely fantastic primer on limit setting that I refer to often. I will try to do her justice in my explanation. For a limit to be most effective, it must:

  • be reasonable to the mind of the child (“When we throw dirt, it can get into people’s eyes and hurt them.”)
  • be explained to the child beforehand (“When we get to the park, please remember that dirt must stay on the ground and not be thrown at other kids.”)
  • be enforced consistently and with gentle firmness (“I see you’re having trouble not throwing dirt. Would you like to swing or go down the slide instead?”)
  • be under the authority of the child (“Looks like you’re still having trouble not throwing dirt. Let’s head home for now and come back tomorrow when you’re feeling calmer.”)

At any point in the exchange, the child may feel angry or coerced. Remember to remind your child of the expectations they affirmed and avoid using their behavior to assign a punishment or consequence. Your child doesn’t reason the way you do, especially if your child is under the age of six. Young children do not reliably have the ability to apply episodic memories to their future decision-making. Your young child is not considering the possibility that a consequence or punishment could result from their behavior.

What Do These Disciplinary Techniques Look Like in Real Life?

Imagine a boy called Caleb. He wants to walk to the park with his mom and his siblings to get some fresh air and play a bit. It’s a little chilly outside, but he’s all warm from being cozy in his house. He doesn’t realize that he’s going to get very chilly while on the walk and he will be unbearably cold by the time they reach the park. His mom checks her weather app and realizes it’s too cold to go without a jacket, but Caleb really doesn’t want to wear one and he tells her just that. What should mom do?

Punishment: Mom chastises Caleb for talking back and not obeying and declares that they won’t be going to the park now OR for the rest of the week.

Natural Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. He huddles down shivering while his siblings play.

Logical Consequence: Caleb and his family go to the park and he is absolutely miserable. Mom gives him a picnic blanket and instructs him to wrap up and sit on a bench while his siblings play.

Limit: At the house, Mom says, “I understand you don’t want to wear a jacket. However, I’m not willing to let you be cold. Would you like to carry a jacket or put it in a backpack to take along?” Mom won’t leave the house until she knows Caleb will be safe and warm at the park. The power to leave the house is in Caleb’s hands and the need for a punishment or consequence is avoided entirely.

Which of these techniques would you prefer to employ? What successes have you had with each? Have you run into any difficulties?

Continue to Part 2

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