Consequences or Punishment?

I have recently engaged in a Facebook conversation about punishment and consequences. I personally prefer to eschew the use of either word because, generally, the second is just a euphemism for the first. If we call it a “consequence” we don’t feel as bad as if we call it by it’s real name. What’s curious is that a parent thinks that taking away a toy because it was thrown is a consequence, and not a punishment. Um, I’m pretty sure that taking something from someone constitutes a punishment. Regardless of the situation.

Yes, there are consequences in life. Every cause has an effect. But, a natural consequence (a child throws a toy, and it breaks) is not that same as a parent-induced consequence (a child throws a toy, and the parent takes it from him). What do parent-made consequences teach? Usually, they teach the child to a) not get caught, and b) resent their parent. So, if punishments don’t work, how do we help our kids to do what’s right?

First, we have to find out what is at the heart of the matter. Focusing on the symptoms without addressing their cause never works. A child hits or screams or jumps on furniture. What is causing that? Is it anger? Frustration? A lot of excited energy? Instead of trying to curb the behavior with “consequences” (regardless of how “logical” they are), we should focus on the emotion behind it.

1. Identify it: “You seem frustrated!” or “Wow, you have a lot of energy!”

2. Set the limit: “But we don’t throw toys,” or “Couches aren’t for jumping on.”

3. Channel the emotion appropriately: “You can throw this bean bag as hard as you want against the wall,” or “I’m gonna get you! You better run!”

Usually, that’s it. Sometimes, there’s more work to be done to excavate the underlying emotion. In those cases, allow them to cry and rage. Don’t move your limit, but be empathetic to their sadness. They aren’t just mad that you stopped them from jumping or throwing. There’s something deeper happening here. Allow that emotion to be released in your loving presence, and then see how that original misbehavior evaporates. No consequences required.

It may be obvious that my example is from multiple interactions with my own pre-schooler. The same principles apply for older kids, though they need more space to talk about their emotions whereas a 3-year old might not be able to do that. 

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2 Comments on "Consequences or Punishment?"

  1. anna
    10/09/2012 at 4:34 pm Permalink

    Ok, so I’m a new reader. And also feel very new to unschooling. But it seems to me that to say “no throwing toys” then saying “you can throw this beanbag” (also a toy) is kinda a mixed message. I fail to see the difference between the 2. Maybe we should instead say, “we need to be careful with what we throw and with what we might hit.” And then “something that is much safer to do is throw this beanbag against the wall…” idk? Does that make since?

  2. Cassi
    10/09/2012 at 10:32 pm Permalink


    Thanks for your comment. First, just to be clear, this post is more on the positive parenting front rather than unschooling. For me, the two are very much related (because once yous start respecting and trusting your children for their education, it quickly leads to trusting and respecting them emotionally as well), but not all unschoolers parent this way.

    You’re right that a beanbag is a toy, and that can be confusing. In our house, I usually say “We don’t throw hard toys,” and once my son got a little older, “If something would hurt if it hits you, then we don’t throw it.” It can be confusing because it goes back to rules vs. principles. The principle is that we are respectful of people and objects. If throwing something might hurt someone or break something, then we don’t do it. But, saying “No throwing” has too many caveats. So, you’re right on. It’s just hard to tailor our coaching to the age of our kids.

    But, you caught me. The more you can go with the principle instead of the rule, regardless of age, the better. Thanks for keeping me honest!


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