Here is a question I received from a reader after my last post: “I read your blog post on differentiating discipline from consequences/punishment, which I think is so helpful! I wondered...Is there an appropriate time for consequences/punishment?”
Before I answer this question, I want to address the terms “punishment” and “consequences.” In my understanding, punishment and consequences are two very different concepts. The goal of punishment is to enforce compliance by using external controls or authoritarian discipline. The goal of consequences is to help children develop internal understanding, self-control, and a desire to follow the rules.
While effective in stopping the misbehavior of the moment, punishment does nothing to build insight or empathy. Instead, it often leads to feelings of anger, discouragement, and resentment, as well as an increase in confusion, evasion, and deception. I find that some parents use the term “consequence” when addressing misbehavior, but it looks and sounds more like punishment because of the way it is given. If a consequence is given angrily or does not help a child with reflecting on his behavior, it is a punishment.
Keeping in mind that the goal of discipline is to teach, parents may want to use a specific consequence to help their child learn a lesson. For example, having your child clean up the water that she spilled while playing at the sink might be an appropriate consequence that may help your child learn why you have the “no unsupervised playing with water at the sink” rule.
So, back to the question above. “Is there an appropriate time for a consequence to be given?” Yes, the time is after the parent and child have established a connection that has calmed down the big emotions of the child (and possibly of the adult), and the child has access to all parts of her brain so that correction/redirection can now be received.
Even after the connection has been made and all is calm, the adult will need to decide if a consequence is necessary to discipline, or in other words, to teach the lesson that will help the child develop insight, empathy, and repair broken relationships. Remember, the goal is to disciple and teach, not to give a consequence.
During this past Christmas break, I spent many wonderful hours with my granddaughters. Four-year-old Eva was mostly loving toward 18-month-old Maleah, but there were a few times I noticed when big sister ran into little sister on purpose, knocking her down and acting like nothing had happened. On one occasion, when I was in charge of the girls and big sister charged into little sister, I thought about my discipline options, and thankfully No-Drama Discipline was fresh on my mind. Seeing that Maleah was not physically hurt and did not need immediate attention, with a smile on my face to signal my calm emotional state, I pulled Eva into my lap and asked her to tell me how she thought her little sister felt when she got shoved. “Not very good. She’s crying,” she replied. Then I asked her how she feels when she gets shoved, not in an angry tone that might have put her on the defensive, but lovingly, because I wanted her to get in touch with her feelings. She was quiet for a moment, and then she whispered, “I’m sad I knocked Maleah down.” To which I replied, “I know you are. How can you let Maleah know you are?” Her response was to jump out of my lap and give her little sister a stuffed animal for comfort. And just like that, we were back to playing.
When we approach discipline with our children’s brain development in mind, we have to take a step back and think in order to act in a way that promotes brain growth. Without this mindset, we often just react to misbehavior in a way that we think may resolve the situation the fastest. Of course, there are times we need to react quickly to behavior (e.g., life-threatening situations), but for the other disciplinary situations, the way we interact with our kids when they are upset significantly affects how their brains develop, which determines what kind of people they are, both today and in the years to come.