We read a very interesting chapter last week in the Parenting Book Club. The chapter itself was about alternatives to punishment. Before I became a parent, I thought I’d be this very strict disciplinarian because I wanted well-behaved children. Once I became a parent, I remembered how the strict disciplinarian approach worked on me as a kid (not very well). Aside from it just making me be scared of getting in trouble, it didn’t really teach me anything other than to not get caught no matter how small the offense. There had to be another way, I just wasn’t aware of it.
Over the years I tried different approaches. I read articles and researched parenting styles. After being exposed to a lot of different methods from cultures all around the world, I liked the idea of natural consequences. You see the disciplinarian method I grew up with focused on punishment. Say I didn’t do my chores, I wouldn’t be allowed to go to an afterschool event with my friends. The thought process is that would teach me to do my chores next time so I could go to the event. The thing is, it actually caused anger and resentment.
Although I didn’t do my chores the day of the event, leading up to that day I’d been doing my chores and homework regularly. So for weeks I’d had permission to go and did everything I was supposed to. The day of the event I was busy working on homework so it would be completed before I left. There wasn’t time to do both my homework and my chores, something I hadn’t thought out before leaving for school that morning. Using the disciplinarian method, my permission to attend the event was revoked and I now had to miss out on something I’d been looking forward to for weeks that was completely unrelated to not doing the chores themselves. It made me feel like everything I’d done was for nothing and was overlooked. It also felt unfair because there wasn’t a conversation involved just a punishment chosen haphazardly.
As a parent, I’ve found natural consequences work and make sense. It’s also better preparing my children for what they will experience as they grow up. As an adult, there hasn’t been a time that I’ve been punished. At work, I knew what was expected of me and what the consequences were should I fail to do my job or break the rules. In my life, I generally know what can happen as a result of doing or not doing something. Natural consequences are directly tied to choices. It’s cause and effect and putting the child in a place of empowerment. They’ll learn that the choices they make yield results.
Natural consequences look more like this. My daughter is expected to keep her room tidy and make her bed every day. Part of keeping her room tidy is making sure she puts her dirty clothes in the hamper. When I do a load of laundry, she brings her hamper to the laundry room. That weekend, we go to a nice family dinner and she knows exactly what she wants to wear. When the night comes and we all start getting ready she can’t find her outfit. Come to find out, instead of putting it in the hamper the last time she wore it, she tossed it on the floor next to her bed. It didn’t get washed and since it’s dirty she can’t wear it. She’ll have to wear something else even though she was really looking forward to wearing her favorite outfit.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s not the end of the world. She’s disappointed but she’ll just have to find something else and get on with the evening. She can’t get mad at me for not washing it because she didn’t put it in the hamper to be washed. The consequence starts and stops with the choice she made to toss her clothes instead of putting them in the hamper. While this is a simple example, it goes to show the difference between a punishment chosen to take something away and a consequence that plays out on its own. It’s a learning opportunity. She’ll remember that the next time she goes to toss something on the floor instead of putting it in the hamper. Whereas she might not remember had I decided to not let her watch her favorite show for leaving her clothes on the floor. It’s hard to connect a punishment with the choice when it’s not directly tied to it.
Punishment generally feels unfair to a child because often times the consequence isn’t directly tied to what the child did (or didn’t) do. While I can justify it as the parent by explaining it, at the end of the day it’s not a consequence it’s a punishment I’ve deemed fitting for the situation. The word punishment itself means “suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution” according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary. So the very word itself shows why I’ve moved away from punishment and embraced consequences. I have no desire to teach my children in a way that makes them feel like they have to pay for something. I want them to learn from their choices and that every decision they make has a result.
Switching to consequences instead of punishment took a lot of work on my behalf. Not because it’s more difficult, most of the time it’s actually easier because the consequences unfold naturally. It was difficult in the sense that I had to reframe the way I handled situations. Instead of thinking in terms of punishment, I had to look for the opportunity to have a conversation so that my daughter could see how her choice brought on the consequences both when she desired them and when she didn’t. It’s an opportunity for her to learn the cause and effect of choice as well as a way of giving her power over her own life. Instead of her focusing on how unfair the situation is or how mean I’m being for punishing her, we’re talking about what she could have done differently for things to work out the way she anticipated.
If you’re interested in furthering the discussion or finding other methods to use in your parenting, I’d like to encourage you to join the Parenting Book Club. We read a unit each week and have a discussion that’s open indefinitely on the unit post. If you don’t have time to read, you can always listen to it! For more details, visit the Parenting Book Club. If you’re already a member, check out this week’s unit here.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on punishment versus consequences. Were you punished or did you have natural consequences as a child? Do you think natural consequences is something you’d like to implement if you don’t already do that at home? Feel free to share in the comments.
The Richness of a Simple Life blog is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.