Discipline 101: What’s the Difference Between Punishments and Consequences?

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Time OutReading about discipline can be confusing. Many experts argue that we should avoid punishments in favor of consequences. But what exactly is the difference? Sorting it out can be confusing. I’ve written this primer to help clarify things.


Punishments vs. Consequences




A punishment is an aversive (painful) response to a behavior that aims to make the behavior less likely to occur in the future. A punishment causes pain to the person being punished by inflicting something unpleasant on him (a spanking, having to write “I will not …” over and over like Bart Simpson does at the beginning of every Simpsons episode, etc…) or the taking away something pleasurable (no dessert if you don’t eat your vegetables). Examples of punishments that parents commonly use are time outs and cancelling playdates for younger kids, and groundings and loss of phone privileges for older kids.


Punishments can be effective in reducing the frequency of problem behaviors, if properly applied. In fact, a recent widely publicized study found that punishments were more effective than rewards at shaping behavior in their task.


If punishments are so effective, why do we need to concern ourselves with consequences? There are several big problems with using punishments in child discipline. Here are just a few examples:


Punishments frequently actually increase misbehavior.


While punishments can be effective in stopping misbehavior in the moment, they can paradoxically increase the frequency of misbehavior in the future. Kids desperately want our passionate attention. They even prefer passionate negative attention to no attention. When we respond to misbehavior with anger and punishment (that is, with our passionate negative attention), our child is actually rewarded for misbehaving. He, therefore, learns that misbehavior is a way to get our passionate attention and is likely to use it as a strategy in the future. The message, in effect is, if your cute little sister is getting too much attention, you can hit her or push her over and get an angry parent to focus on you.


Punishments do not teach right from wrong. They teach kids to be sneaky and deceptive.


Despite what many people believe, punishments do not teach moral lessons. Punishments are about controlling behavior and, as such, they frequently make kids feel the feelings that go along with being controlled – angry, mistreated, and resentful. Punishment discourages children from reflecting on how their behavior has impacted others. Instead their focus is on feeling that they have been treated unfairly, or thinking about how they will get even. Rather than teaching a child a set of moral values, punishments teach children that the problem is not the behavior itself, but getting caught and punished. They learn to cover up and be deceptive rather than to control their own behavior.


Punishments do not teach skills.


Even when effective, punishments only teach children what not to do, not what to do. The meaning of the word “discipline” is “to teach.” Too often “discipline” is used as a synonym for punishment. Our job as parents is to teach our children the skills they need to have happy, successful, respectful lives. Punishments do not teach any positive skills or behaviors.


Punishments pit parents and children against each other.


Punishments harm the parent-child relationship. Punishments can cause resentment and erode trust. Rather than being on the same team in facing the challenges that life presents us with, punishments put parents in the position of acting coercively against their child to control his behavior.




Because of these inherent problems with punishments, in the 1960s child development experts like Rudolf Dreikurs and Haim Ginott, began discouraging parents from using punishments as a part of child discipline. They both emphasized focusing on decreasing misbehavior by addressing its causes, rather than trying to get rid of it after it has surfaced by punishing it. However, they both did feel that it is important for a child to experience the consequences of his behavior.


Used in this way, consequences are about the child learning the effects (i.e., consequences) of his behavior. If I do this, then that consequence will occur. For example, a child has a tantrum and smashes his favorite toy on the ground breaking the toy. The effect or consequence of the action is that he doesn’t have that toy anymore.


Natural consequences are distinguished from logical consequences. Natural consequence are consequences that occur without parental intervention. The broken toy in the example above is a natural consequence. The boy’s parents didn’t need to do anything to create the consequence of no toy. It naturally followed from the child’s behavior. Other natural consequences include getting bad grades for not doing homework, or getting detention for misbehaving at school. When a natural consequence occurs, because they didn’t create the consequence, parents can be on the child’s side in helping him deal with the consequence (consoling him about the loss of his toy, or guiding him in how to respond to trouble at school).


According to this view, parents should not shield a child from the natural consequences of his actions or fix things for him, but should supply “empathy and encouragement” as the child deals with the consequences (see Jane Nelson, author of Positive Discipline). There are certain circumstances where a child needs to be protected from the natural consequences of his behavior: if a child’s actions will endanger or harm the child or another person (in these instances the behavior must be stopped), of if the child does not have the skills or foresight to handle the situation that might lead to a natural consequence (so nothing will be learned from the consequence).


Logical consequences are different from natural consequences in that they result from parental intervention. A logical consequence is a punishment. It is a punishment that is logically connected to the misbehavior. A teen who misuses his phone faces the logical consequence of losing use of the phone for some period of time. Losing the phone for fighting with a sibling is not a logical consequence because the fighting and the phone are not connected. It is argued that logical consequences are preferable because they feel less arbitrary to kids and can feel more fair. While logical consequences can be effective, they frequently fall prey to the problems associated with other types of punishments.


Here are a some guidelines regarding the use of consequences:


Use alternatives to consequences/punishments whenever possible.


Examples of alternatives to punishments are problems solving, and setting up a sticker chart to reward and teach positive behaviors rather than punishing negative ones.


When using consequences, use logical ones. When using logical consequences, follow Jane Nelson’s “Four R’s for Logical Consequences.”


Consequences should be:


  1. Related – the consequence should be related to the misbehavior.
  2. Respectful – the consequence should be administered respectfully, that is without anger, shame, blame or lectures.
  3. Reasonable – the consequence must not be seen as harsh by parent or child.
  4. Revealed in advance – consequences for misbehavior should be established in advance so that parents and children know what to expect. Consequences should not be made up on the spot. The most effective consequences are made with input from children.


Want to read more? Check out Why rewards are more effective than punishment–with children.


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