The Difference Between Consequences That Punish and Consequences That Teach

The word “consequence” in parenting has come to mean different things to different people. But to truly teach kids a lesson, a consequence must have certain characteristics.

upset child facing a consequence while parents look on

“Kids need to experience the consequences of their actions.”

For any parent whose goal it is to raise a self-sufficient child, those words ring true.

Our children need to learn that their actions matter, that there’s an appropriate way to act and behave, and that how we talk to others matters. 

But here’s where things get complicated…

The word “consequences” has come to have different definitions for different people. 

Some interpret it to mean letting kids experience the negative natural effects of a choice they’ve made when that choice has gone awry.

However, others feel a parent must impose a consequence on their child due to their bad behavior.  

Here’s the thing: while one of these scenarios can serve as a great way for older kids to learn, the other is really nothing more than punishment and carries with it all the negative effects that punishment has on children.

Consequences vs. punishment

So how can parents tell the difference between a consequence that teaches their child and one that’s actually just punishment?

This is a high-level overview of the difference between consequences that teach and consequences that punish:

Consequences that teach:

  • Are logical and related to the situation
  • Are respectful and reasonable 
  • Teach children how to do better
  • Encourage life lessons and character growth
  • Are consistent
  • Are revealed in advance, not in the heat of the moment
  • Work to eliminate bad behavior long-term

Consequences that punish:

  • Are demeaning, humiliating, or cause pain
  • Are not related to the situation
  • Do not teach children how to do better
  • Make children feel either revengeful or think poorly of themselves
  • Are inconsistent
  • Are revealed in the heat of the moment and are dictatorial
  • Do nothing to eliminate bad behavior and likely make it worse

When our children act poorly or make bad choices, we as parents have an obligation to teach them the correct way to behave.

And if we’re effectively teaching our kids the correct way to behave, in time, our children will stop whatever behavior is vexing us. 

Kids do want to do better. Even if outwardly this doesn’t always seem to be the case. No child wants to be viewed as or feel like a bad person who makes adults angry.

But without guidance from adults, our kids are likely to continue to whine, nag, hit, throw, scream, or repeat whatever negative behavior they’re currently doing.

So it’s in our best interest (and even more so our kids’!) to ensure our reaction to their behavior leads them toward a better understanding of how to do better.

Consequences that teach:

Despite popular parenting advice, consequences aren’t the singular way to lead our kids toward better behavior.

In fact, many other effective methods get to the root of the problem our child is facing and help them make better choices and improve behavior. 

Other methods – such as problem-solving with our kids or simply creating more structure with routines – are a few examples of alternatives to consequences. (For more ideas see 7 Parenting Tools That Teach.)

But in certain situations, consequences do teach kids valuable lessons (when they follow the guidelines listed above). Here are a few examples:

  • Because of your agreed-upon family rule, your child can’t play with her neighborhood friend because she’s failed to put her clean laundry away.
  • Your child knocks over a glass of orange juice and, as a result, must clean it up (with your assistance, if they’re young and inexperienced).
  • Because your child spent all of his allowance on a trinket that broke five hours after purchase, he now doesn’t have enough money to get the cute stuffed animal he spotted at the toy store.
  • You warn your teen that it’s supposed to rain in the afternoon, but they disregard your comment and go to school without a raincoat, and they get wet. 
  • Your teen fails to clean her room, so she can’t find her soccer uniform for today’s game – and now she has to figure out what to do.

Note that in all these instances the parent didn’t impose or come up with the consequence. The consequence was either agreed upon ahead of time or just naturally occurred as a result of the action or inaction of the child. 

Examples of consequences that punish:

Psychologists have found that punishment is not only ineffective but can actually lead to worse behavior. This isn’t a modern “snowflake” evaluation, the idea that punishment is ineffective has existed for at least seventy-seven years. 

We’ve realized that, instead of teaching the child how to do better, punishment only makes them suffer, feel bad about themselves, and consequently seek revenge or act out even more aggressively. 

When faced with bad behavior from their children, parents naturally (and rightly) feel they need to do something to address the behavior.

And in the heat of the moment, the parent often quickly thinks of an action they can impose on their child to demonstrate that what they did was wrong.

This action is often thought of or referred to as a consequence, but unfortunately, because of the way it’s structured, is perceived by the child as punishment and carries with it all of punishment’s negative effects. 

Here are a few examples of what many parents mistake as a consequence that actually punishes kids:

  • Your teen comes home late from a night out and is grounded from all social activities for two weeks.
  • Your son throws toys at his younger brother and as a result, is sent to his room.
  • Your child curses at their sibling and is told they won’t get dessert that night.
  • Your teen fails to tell you where they are after school and gets her phone taken away for a week.

In each of these circumstances, the consequence imposed on the child for their behavior isn’t in any way related to what occurred. 

But even more important, none of these consequences address what’s wrong with the behavior or why the child did what they did.

Here’s how these situations can be structured so they teach instead of punish:

> In the case of the teen coming home late, it would be important for the parent to try to get to the heart of what caused the teen to be late and strategize solutions to avoid that happening in the future.

> While throwing a toy at a younger sibling is dangerous and certainly unacceptable behavior, a more productive approach than banishing the child to his room would be to find out what caused your son to act out and help him find better ways to express his frustration.

> Kids curse for a number of reasons –maybe they’ve heard a classmate curse, they want attention, or cursing makes them feel more powerful. Whatever the reason, kids need instruction and redirection on the appropriate way to talk. Taking away dessert won’t accomplish this.

> Although they look, and increasingly act, like young adults, teens still lack many skills. While your teen may seem mature enough to carry out the simple task of letting you know where she is after school, she may actually need help remembering. Working with your teen to devise a plan to help her remember will develop life skills more than her phone being taken away for a week. If, however, your teen doesn’t tell you because she’s up to no good, then you have more serious matters to address. 

Remember…all behavior is communication

It’s important to keep in mind that what adults distinguish as bad behavior is really just a child’s way of communicating.

As immature humans who are still learning and growing, kids do not understand or remember the right and proper ways to behave. They also don’t always understand the best way to address problems or issues they’re facing and need our help.

  • The child who whines may feel that no one is listening to them.
  • The child who hits their brother may feel powerless in the relationship.
  • The child who continues to jump on the sofa after being told not to may need more exercise.
  • The teen who consistently forgets homework needs help with executive functioning skills.  

Each of these issues needs to be addressed, but when looked at through the lens of the child, it’s clear that children don’t simply behave badly in a vacuum. They behave badly because they have an unmet need or simply don’t grasp the best way to communicate.

The more we get to the root of what’s causing our children to behave the way they are, the more we can truly help them learn and grow and eliminate bad behavior. 

For more on how to disciple (teach) rather than punish kids see:

How to Disciple Kids While Reaching Their Hearts at the Same Time

Why Your Misbehaving Child Won’t Stop and What to do About it

Have a Disobedient Child? Four Steps to Address Your Child’s Misbehavior

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About Kerry Flatley

Hi! I’m Kerry, the mother of two girls and a certified parent educator. I believe it is possible for parents to have a supportive, loving, and warm relationship with their kids while raising them to be independent and ultimately self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve read numerous books and articles that support this belief and I’ve put these ideas into practice with my own kids. Read more about me and Self-Sufficient Kids here.