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, what I want you to know is 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 consequence 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

Peaceful Parenting is Not the Easy Way

We all started out somewhere and we all have a story to tell. In my case, my own upbringing was rather “because I said so” authoritarian. There was some freedom around intellectual pursuits, but children were to obey immediately and without question. I recall “FRONT AND CENTER!” being a common command and “That’s a mistake” serving as an almost reflexive reaction to anything I did that went against the grain. The hard truth is that, when I was little, my parents generally followed an authoritarian Christian evangelical philosophy with a fundamentalist flavor and all the perspectives on child rearing that came with that. I love my parents and I had so many blessings during my childhood. I still disagree with that mindset about kids.

It’s probably no surprise that I bought into it myself for many years, including years I was employed in child care. Up until about six years ago, I believed that children were born sinful and wicked, and that they needed Christian molding in order to become holy. I’ve since been Chrismated into the Orthodox Church, which takes a much gentler and a more holistic approach to the way in which we regard children and ourselves too. For me, Orthodoxy showed me that the end goal was so much more important than whatever crisis was happening in the here and now. Wisdom and patience had to be my tools.

Now, I’m going to share something potentially shocking here. I want y’all to understand clearly where I was six years ago. I present to you pre-Peaceful Mom:

Yikes on bikes, y’all. Yikes on bikes and trikes with giant yellow wheels that people ride on the ocean. Just YIKES.

When I look at the date on that facebook timestamp, I realize that it really hasn’t been very long since I was lobbying for the government to dole out passes for people to hit their kids! I remember what it felt like to say that too, so I’ve dedicated this post to share with you a framework build-out that I hope will support the efforts of those of you who are coming to Peaceful Parenting with old baggage like I did.

But How Do You Make Them Behave??

I heard about Peaceful Parenting and thought it sounded too good to be true. So, I joined several groups and I’m telling y’all, my mind was screaming “BUT HOW DO YOU MAKE THEM BEHAVE??” every time I read a gushy story about parents connecting with their kids and finding new solutions and blah blah blah. (Those blahs are all the amazing things that come along with Peaceful Parenting. I just want y’all to understand my frame of mind back then.) I utterly could not wrap my mind around the idea that children could be allowed autonomy and still be respectful and responsible. It just did not compute. I was stuck in the authoritarian frame of mind which was telling me that children have to be placed under an adult’s control or they can’t function in society. Peaceful Parenting requires a massive paradigm shift for some of us. I even found myself going through the stages of grief. That’s how overthrown I felt.

I find that irritation/anger is a pretty common response when I talk with people about Peaceful Parenting. They try to point out all the ways that Peaceful Parenting can’t work even when I provide evidence to the contrary. I get it. I was there just a few short years ago. For me, it was infuriating to hear people talking so earnestly about something I missed out on as a kid, and it simply didn’t make sense that these people would give their kids so much lenience. I was certain they were being overly permissive or even neglectful. No way could Peaceful Parenting result in anything other than bratty behavior. (Sidebar: I no longer believe brats even exist, but that’s a topic for an upcoming post.)

Gracious! Why was I so invested in Peaceful Parents being wrong? I imagine a therapist would point to the child inside of me screaming, “It’s not fair!” I really could have used a lot more understanding when I was a little. So, I would ask you, knowing what you know about Peaceful Parenting, and putting aside any conviction that it couldn’t possibly work, would you have appreciated this approach informing your own upbringing?

I Can’t Do This

If you’ve decided that Peaceful Parenting is worth the effort, but you fear you can’t manage it, you’re not alone. There are facebook groups with tens of thousands of people struggling with all of this too. I find myself constantly edging toward the authoritarian side of the fence, and I have to bring myself back to center all the time. I have to ask myself, “Why are you saying no right now?” and “What is behind this child’s behavior?” instead of delivering the old standard “Because I said so” or leaping to punishment as soon as my child does something mildly inconvenient. When I first started, I jumped in feet first. I went full on attachment with all the nursing and babywearing and bedsharing I could get. It was amazing! Infanthood is just magical.

Then, babies turn into toddlers who are very certain about what it is they want to do. Toddlers that keep you running for your books to read up on how you should address their many new behaviors. But, there’s a secret in all this. You grow into Peaceful Parenting just like your kids do. It’s great to start out when they’re infants. It’s also great to start out when they’re teens. It doesn’t matter when you start. You and your kids will find a rhythm. You can do this! You’re going to mess up and feel like you’re failing, but you’re not. The fact that you worry about failing means you care. Every interaction you have with your kids is another opportunity to be gentler and kinder.

So What Do You Actually DO then?

I’ve been right here more times than I can count. Once I had decided that children were worthy of respect from me as an adult, I couldn’t fathom what to do with that. I turned to books and read everything I could. I need structure. I need formulas. I need something I could retrieve from the catalog in my brain that would tell me “do this, then this, then that” to help me through difficult times. That’s how my mind works. I tend to be very analytical and I struggle with anything that feels chaotic. Over the years, my approach has become a lot more natural, because I’ve practiced it… well… every single day! So, here’s what I do.

  1. Create My Own Peacefulness: I take a deep breath and remember that the Peaceful part of Peaceful Parenting is me. I love memes and I follow as many people on social media as I can who post memes about Peaceful Parenting. Often times, one of those memes comes to mind at just the right time and reminds me of my purpose.
  2. Assess My Child’s Needs: I assess if my child’s needs have been met. Discomfort, hunger, thirst, sleepiness, under- or over-stimulation, etc. Is there something basic that’s irking my child? If so, I try to address that in the process of working through the challenging behavior. Remember, children do well when they can.
  3. Foster My Child’s Emotional Equilibrium: If my child is feeling too upset to hear anything I have to say, my first duty in the interest of respect is to help them by connecting. You’ll often hear me say, “I’m here. You’re safe. It’s ok to be upset.” or something to that effect as I offer comfort. I have cuddly kids, so they usually want a hug, but even when they don’t, I stay nearby and let them know they aren’t alone.
  4. Empathize with My Child: Everything in Peaceful Parenting really hinges on this one. If we can acknowledge that our children’s emotions are always valid and worthwhile, we can remember to address them gently every time. My simplest go to phrase is “You’re (emotion) because (reason.)” It isn’t so easy for kids to voice their emotions or put together what’s causing their distress, so speaking it out from your perspective can give them the words they need. For instance, “You’re angry because sister took your toy without asking.” That validation is crucial for their self-confidence but also to develop their sense of morality. No, it’s not ok for people to take your things without asking, no matter how old you are.
  5. Set Gentle, Reasonable Limits: If you need to set a limit, now’s the time. My standard limit language is “I can’t let you (behavior) because (reason that logically follows).” For example, “I can’t let you hit your sister because you will hurt her.” Using “I” statements helps you, as the parent, express your own perspective, and prevents you from moralizing your child. With this prompt, you never again have to run the risk of telling a child they’re bad.

How Will My Child Learn Right from Wrong?

Here’s another question I had. It didn’t make sense to me that children could learn morals without strictness and punishment. It took me a long time to figure out how that part works. Maybe I can help you too. 

I want you to think about a big outdoor trampoline with a safety net around it. Like this:

This is how I think of limits. They’re that safety net. I simply show my kids where the boundary is and help protect them from crossing it. Now, the limits I provide are much more effective than a safety net because, while I stand in the way of trouble, I also explain and guide my children’s understanding of the way this world works. I offer love, connection, and understanding that a safety net can’t. But, I like the analogy of a trampoline safety net, because it’s just there as a limit. It’s non-judgmental and it doesn’t intentionally harm the kids having fun within its mesh walls. It can be removed as the kids become more able to navigate trampoline play without hurting themselves, much like a limit in Peaceful Parenting. I’m sure there are some holes in my analogy and that’s ok, but I want y’all to visualize how limits can protect and teach without harm.

Given everything I’ve said thus far, I’m sure you can see that Peaceful Parenting can be rather dialogue-heavy and time consuming. It’s become such a priority for me that I’ve adjusted my entire life around it. I leave more time to get places, so that I don’t feel compelled to yell at my kids to get out to the car. (Full Disclosure: I am a yeller and it’s constant work not to do it.) I create ways in which to say yes instead of no, because I want my kids to see opportunities more often than they see barriers. I encourage my kids to bare their hearts to me no matter where we are. As a result, I have all but stopped caring about what anyone thinks when we’re out in public. It doesn’t matter where we are or what’s happening, I will kneel down and help my child through a difficult moment. I will be the shield and safety net.

As a Peaceful Parent, I’ve found my efforts to be immense and the rewards to be incalculable. My children are affectionate, kind, and respectful while unabashedly being exactly who they are through and through. I’m here to support you in having similarly wonderful experiences in your Peaceful Parenting journey. If you have reactions or questions about the transition to Peaceful Parenting, please post them in the comments below. Let’s talk.