Tuesday, February 20, 2018

What are the Consequences?

Recently I have heard adults saying, “I don’t punish my child. I give consequences.” When I ask what is meant by that, I hear ‘If they don’t do what I tell them, they don’t get the ice cream I said we would get,’ or ‘they don’t get to go to the park,’ or, or, or...

Let’s start off with some clarity and honesty here - ‘consequences’ is another way to say ‘punishment.’ When you take away something from the child based on the child's behavior, that is a form of punishment. 

The ancient principle is: Someone does something ‘wrong’ and therefore must receive punishment so they don’t do it again. Punishment takes many forms but all are based on this principle of retribution. 

1. When you have the attitude a child did something ‘bad’ and ‘wrong,’ even if you don’t speak a word to the child, it is punishment.
2. When you scold a child and use words like ‘shouldn’t have,’ ‘bad,’ ‘wrong,’ and ‘not appropriate,’ it is punishment.
3. When you withhold something a child wants based on the child's not doing what you want, it is punishment.
4. When you put a child on ‘time out’ it is punishment.
5. When you hit a child it is punishment 

Okay, often adults observe young children behave in ways the adult does not like, and the adult wants the child to act or speak differently. This is a given, it will happen. I think the adult goes astray when any of the above 5 types of punishment are taken up. And I’ll tell you why.

When we use any form of punishment, we are teaching the young child to punish others when he doesn’t get what he wants. Young children learn by imitating our example.

When we use any of the forms of punishment, the child experiences it as an attack. We are a danger for the child in those moments. When someone experiences danger, the ancient part of the brain, the survival system AKA the Reptile Brain, takes over. Learning does not take place in this part of our neurology. This is the irony; we want the child to learn to do something different, and yet we force the child to use a part of the neurology that does not learn. Learning takes place in the more advanced parts of the brain, particularly the Limbic System.

The young child wants what he wants, just like you and me. He tries to get what he wants and needs by various strategies. Repeated use of those strategies becomes the child’s habit. Why? Because those strategies are discovered to be successful. The strategies are successful in relation to us, their adults!

Let’s reframe this. Instead of thinking the child is ‘bad and ‘wrong’ and that what he did he ‘shouldn’t have’ because it is ‘not appropriate,’ try to look at what he did as a strategy and these strategies often become habit. Then we can try to offer different habits that are more in line with what we want.

Truly, we use those judgmental words when something happens that we don’t like. That is the central truth of the situation. I don’t like hitting, I don’t like food to be thrown, I don’t like the dog’s ear to be pulled (the dog doesn’t like it either), and so on. Let’s bring to the child’s attention something that is the truth of the situation - do I like what just happened?

Then we can try to offer a different action for the child to imitate. With our actions and words. Over and over for days in a row until the child begins to try out the new strategy we have offered. There is no sense getting frustrated or impatient because it has taken many days and still no change, Changing habits takes time (for us too).

What are the consequences of consequences?
1. Damage to your connection with your child. It is hard to trust and feel safe with sometimes dangerous Y...O...U.
2. Your child adopting the technique of punishing to get what he wants. Imitation is how the young child learns.
3. Perpetuating the Blaming/Fault-finding/Shaming system that permeates our world. Imitation is how the young child learns.

When we understand the actual consequences of our own actions, we can begin to reframe the way we think and offer the young child a new behavior in the modality in which they can best learn. We offer the example for imitation based on the understanding that the child is simply attempting to fulfill wants and needs.


  1. I confess I have been very much in punishment mode.

    Partly because I think I am worn out.
    We are going through a very intense life transition . My stress is at an all
    Time high unfortunately and I need help to move through parenting frusterations without punishment.

    I like the idea of saying " I do not like cereal on the floor" or " I do not like telling" " I like a clean floor. " " I like a calm voice"

    My three year old screams and cries when he doesn't get what he wants ... especially if he is overly tired..... I feel he also needs to get more sustenance yet he doesn't like a lot of food( still. Nurses often)
    Currently when he screams and yells and hits his sister for not doing what he wants I punish him my saying " no martin. That's not nice. I do not like that" " sometimes I threaten him that he won't get to nurse later( I know it sounds and is terrible) I am just at my wits end and I want him to stop screaming when I was his hair or when he can't have what he wants!!!

    1. It sounds like you do have a lot of stress. The first thing is to forgive yourself for getting stressed, and look for ways to self-soothe. Don't neglect your needs for sleep and food! Then you can have better footing from which to connect with your children.
      And always remember what is happening right now is just a phase, and they will get older, and things will change and evolve.
      Noticing you 'lose it' sometimes is a big step. Accept yourself for doing the best you can in the moment, and trying to do differently next time. The key is you and your relationship to what happens in the moment, and how you either respond or react.
      The path of parenting is not an easy one. It takes all the strength and courage we can muster.