Negative Consequences vs. Punishment

Some people use the words consequences and punishment interchangeably. However, there are significant differences between these two concepts that all parents need to understand. Let us examine these differences and learn why they are so important.

Natural Consequences
“Natural consequences” refer to the natural effects of a behavior, effects that occur whether or not parents intervene. The connection between cause and effect is clear, and it’s a connection that any person can make with reasoning and logic. For example, the consequence of climbing on an unsteady ladder or chair may be toppling off; the consequence of not eating breakfast and lunch may be experiencing hunger pains. No one has to step in to provide the lesson; the lesson happens naturally as a direct result of the behavior.

Logical Consequences
“Logical consequences” are negative consequences that are arranged by the parent or other caregiver. These are aversive events that are created in order to teach a lesson. They are directly related to the child’s misbehavior. For instance, a child who repeatedly racks up a huge cell phone bill might be denied cell phone privileges for a time if the behavior persists. Or, a child who continuously leaves his toys out instead of putting them away, may be denied the privilege of playing with those toys (for a short time) if that behavior persists. In other words, the child will be able to make the connection between what he is doing wrong and the price he is paying. These consequences are designed to help him improve his ways. The child is always given a warning before logical consequences are applied so that he can choose to repair the behavior instead of paying the price. For instance, the child may be told, “from now on, if you leave your toys all over the floor, you will not be able to play with for 24 hours.” This helps the child make a conscious decision about his own actions.

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Illogical Consequences
“Illogical consequences” are negative consequences that are arranged by the parent or other caregiver, just like “logical consequences.” However, there is no logical connection between the consequence and the misbehavior. In cases where the logical consequence is not possible or would not be a deterrent, the parent creates an “illogical consequence” instead. For instance, if the child couldn’t care less that he won’t be able to play with those toys the next day, then this will not be an effective consequence for him, even though it is “logical.” Therefore, the parent might say, “From now on, when you leave your toys all over the floor, you will lose your afternoon treat.” If this will motivate the child to clean up his mess, then it may certainly be used. The child will still be able to make the connection between his behavior and his unfortunate loss of his junk food. As in logical consequences, the child is always given the choice to behave appropriately by being warned of a consequence ahead of time.

Unlike consequences, punishment is any technique whose goal is to cause the child emotional or physical pain. In punishment, pain is the essential element of the consequence. The goal of the pain is meant to cause a behavioral change but it is also partially intended as a sort of parental “revenge” – a desire to show the child who is boss or show the child how upset the parent is. Whereas a negative consequence is meant to be annoying enough to motivate behavioral change, it is NOT meant to reflect the parent’s degree of upset or anger. In fact, anger has no role whatsoever in the application of negative consequences; the consequences are meant to replace the need for anger. Anger is seen as a parental emotion, not a parenting tool. Perhaps the easiest way to observe the difference between a consequence and a punishment is to see how each might sound in context. Let’s suppose a 5 year old has stuck her tongue out at her mother. If Mom chooses to use a negative consequence, she would do so in the structured format called the 2X-Rule (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice for details on applying negative consequences using this structure). On the second occasion of sticking out the tongue, Mom says something like, “As I’ve explained to you before, we don’t stick out a tongue at Mommy because it’s not respectful and it hurts Mommy’s feelings. If you are feeling mad at Mommy, just use your words and tell Mommy you’re mad. From now on, when you stick your tongue out at Mommy, you will lose stories at bedtime.” If the child now earns herself loss of stories one night for sticking out her tongue again, the child will recognize the connection between the disrespectful behavior and the loss of stories, and probably make an adjustment in her behavior.

Now let’s see how punishment might have sounded: upon receiving the “tongue,” Mom says, “THAT’S IT FOR YOU YOUNG LADY! NO STORIES AT BEDTIME TONIGHT!”  We see that anger is a big part of Mom’s educational strategy and that there is an element of revenge or getting back at the child for her inappropriate behavior. There is no warning, no educational strategy – just a quick kick-back. The negative consequence in this scenario is much less powerful than the negative effect – it is the rejection that the child will remember, not the importance of politeness.  In general, punishment is a negative consequence thrown at the child (usually in anger) at the time the child is misbehaving. There is no warning. The consequence is meant to “hurt” the child into behaving better. For instance, when a parent sees a child grabbing toys away from the baby, she might suddenly yell,” You’ve just lost T.V. this afternoon!” Rather than providing education, the parent is providing retribution. And this is how the child feels it. Without being warned, the child feels attacked. He has not been given the choice to improve or comply. If the parent had stated a rule and a consequence, all of this would be different. “We don’t grab toys because it is upsetting the baby. Please let him play. From now on, when I see you grab toys, you’ll have to leave the room for a while.” This structure provides education, not just pain. In general, we could say that punishment makes the parent feel better. Indeed, punishment is often harsh, providing a release for the anger that a parent feels when a child misbehaves. Again, this has nothing to do with education. It is an emotional reaction.

Punishment is unhealthy for children, leading to behavioral and emotional problems. It can also harm the parent-child bond and negatively affect academic performance, social skills and physical health. On the other hand, negative consequences provide education without unnecessary and unfortunate short term or long term negative effects. Even so, this is only true when negative consequences constitute a minute part of the child’s experience while the major part consists of conditional and unconditional forms of good-feeling, positive attention (see Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe for a detailed discussion of the correct ratio of loving to guiding interventions and strategies for achieving that ratio in everyday parenting).

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