In yesterday’s blog I began a discussion about parenting in response to the article “What if Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?” by Katherine Reynolds Lewis. I spoke about the unaffectedness of punishing by spanking and offered an example of another way to handle a difficult parenting situation. The scenario I chose was one in which a child was in danger and required a pretty significant response by her parent. But what about the lesser behavior problems that parents face every day?
Today’s parents will often talk about consequences. This sounds better than punishment but is often just a nicer word for what is really punishment. What is the difference and why are consequences better for teaching kids to behave than punishment?
Punishment is by definition unpleasant or painful. Consequences follow behaviors that are positive or negative. Punishment is imposed by a person in power. Consequences follow naturally from our actions. They fit in nicely with the idea of karma. Punishment is intended to make a person feel fear. Consequences teach us about life, what to avoid, what to seek in order to get what we want or what will make us happy. Punishment teaches children that harming others is acceptable in certain circumstances. It also teaches about power over others. It depowers children. Consequences can be a forum for empowering children by giving them the tools to avoid things that are unpleasant or fearful.
There are two kinds of consequences, natural and logical. Natural consequences are those that automatically flow from our behaviors. If a child fails to bring her bike in at night and it gets stolen, that is a natural consequence. If a child brings food into his room and fails to clean it up, getting mice as roommates is a possible natural consequence. Good consequences might include getting an award for excelling in a sport after they gave their best in practicing. Another is the good grades that come from study. A good feeling after helping someone is a natural consequence, too, one that comes from the inside. Note that these consequences don’t have anything to do with the parent. In these situations a parent can serve as a support simply by pointing out the link between behavior and outcome. The child is responsible in each case for the outcome.
Things aren’t always so neat and tidy, however. If a parent says, “Bring your bike in or it’ll get stolen” they cannot depend on thieves to show up to provide the logical consequence. And even if they do, is it worth the loss of a bike to prove a point? This is when logical consequences come in useful. I always tell parents that, when choosing a logical consequence, choose one that most resembles the natural one. If a child leaves his bike out, a parent might take the bike away for a few days explaining that they want him to know what it feels like not to have a bike. This is not so much a punishment as it is a teaching about what the natural consequence would feel like.
I have heard about some other logical consequences that were quite creative. One dad got tired of his son continually neglecting to take out the garbage before garbage day and the dad was always having to do it for him. Finally one day, when it came time to give his son his allowance, he handed the boy two dollars. “Hey, Dad, I am supposed to get 10 dollars.” The father responded in a very matter-of-fact manner, “Yes you are right. But I took the garbage out for you twice this week and my services are very expensive.” He then made the link to real life. “In the real world, if you don’t show up for work, you don’t get paid.”
The thing I like about using consequences to deal with children’s behavior is that they put responsibility for behavior where it belongs – on the child. I used to think that the purpose of parenting was to teach children to obey, but now I believe that the purpose of parenting is to help children to develop the inner strength that will help them to make good choices. Consequences do a better job of teaching lessons that can support this important process.