Consequences for kids. The critical difference between a ‘punishment’ and a ‘consequence’

Posted under Educator Inspiration


consequences for kids

Image via Creative Commons, with thanks.

Consequences for kids.

The critical difference between a ‘punishment’ and a ‘consequence’


There is one little bit in my book where I write about ‘punishments‘. Oooh, that was a difficult word to include in a creative parenting book. But let me give you a bit of back story. I ran a survey in 2009, that asked a bunch of people to give me their ‘hot topics’ so I could make sure to cover their needs with some creative thoughts and/or ideas. Surprisingly, ‘what to do about punishment?’ was a hot topic and quite a number of people who completed the survey asked me to write about it.

In the scheme of my 435 page book, the bit about ‘punishments’ is only a page or two long, yet of all the words I wrote and ideas I gave, writing about ‘punishments’, even using the word ‘punishment’, made me feel uncomfortable. It still does.

‘Punishment’ to me sounds like something that is left over from the convict era, and I can’t help but picture lashings on a bare back, blood seeping from open wounds. I know. Gross. Or smacking, or caning, or hitting, or hurting a child. Not cool. Definitely NOT something that ANYONE in their right mind wants to do to their child.

BUT the thing is, as much as I like to think that my responses and re-actions to something Ned has done as a ‘consequence’, sometimes, using that word is just a veil for what I’m really doing- that is, meting out a “punishment”…  


And here’s why….


It helps to take a look at the word, ‘consequence’ to get the bigger picture.

ORIGIN late Middle English : via Old French from Latin, consequentia, from consequent- ‘following closely,’ from the verb, consequi.


Following closely.


In my book, I talk about ‘conscious consequences’ or ‘natural consequences’. Responses and actions we give to the children that closely follow the previous misdemeanor.

Here’s a few examples…

  • When a child spills a drink of orange juice on the floor… we help them to clean it up, or at least set them up to get going, giving them a cloth and perhaps a bucket of soapy water, so THEY participate in the rightening of the situation.
  • When a child draws on the table with new crayons… we help them to remove the marks by giving them a small sponge, perhaps a spray of cleaner or a dribble of a cream cleanser, and model for them, show them how to scrub and rub, so THEY participate in the rightening of the situation
  • When a child bites another child, we help them to care for the child that has been bitten, and show compassion through rightful action by perhaps bringing the child a glass of water, or a tissue, or an ice-pack, and then modelling to them HOW to make the situation better. We might sit beside the child demonstrating how to wipe up a tear, or hold an icepack to a wound, encouraging them to repair the situation as best as they could, hopefully preventing further incidences. The fact that the child has to face his/her actions, and be (gently) removed from play (where they really want to be) AND give up (well, lose!) their free time to FIX something they damaged, is a powerful consequence following closely to the initial incident… and it means THEY once again participate in the rightening of the situation…

There seems to be a common theme, doesn’t there. The second action (the repair response) follows closely to the original action.

BUT… a punishment is different.

To “punish” is, from the dictionary, to “inflict a penalty or sanction on (someone) as retribution for an offense,esp. a transgression of a legal or moral code” : I have done wrong and I’m being punished for it. 

So, let’s be clear. A punishment doesn’t have to be a smack, or hitting, or any of those horrible things I listed early.

A punishment CAN BE taking their ipod away. Or sitting them in time out. Or making them write lines. Or making them miss out on a family excursion. Or taking away a toy. Or taking away a privilege such as a weekly Friday night treat, or an ice-cream, or something they rely upon to feel safe in the world.  Anything done for no good reason, perhaps other than to make us feel we’ve actually done something. Anything done for no good reason is often an emotional response to something we can’t control, or don’t like, or fear, or am angry about.

A punishment is an illogical and often irrational response, with usually NO CONNECTION to the incident at hand.

In my experience, a punishment also stands for ‘POWER OVER’ someone else. I dole out something TO you, whether you like it or not. In fact, you don’t have a choice. When I really look deeply into this, “punishment” to me stands for ‘I’m bigger/better/stronger than you so you must do what I say”. How does that teach anything other than bullying?

The story of smashed eggs

Last week, Ned and I visited a friend’s farm with some other little children. Ned and his mates had a lovely time playing, and climbing trees, and building block towers, and roaming the place. Until it all ended with Ned and his friends collecting some eggs and smashing them.  Mmmm. Not cool at all.

When Ned got into my car, he began the conversation with a frazzled attempt to tell me a story about chickens and how he’d taken the egg and put it back under the hen… one of those stories where you JUST KNOW something has happened. Something where he has done wrong. He knew it. I knew it. So then I spent the drive home trying to prize from him the full story, and work out the extent of his involvement AND the damage they had done. Bah humbug. The worst kind of moment in parenting. I abhor it when my child does something like this. I am shocked (although not surprised…I’ve worked with boys for long enough to know how a little excitement, combined with friends, no adults watching, and a dash of adventurous mischief can work) at what my generally sweet and endearing little boy has done, AND angry that he has crossed the line of good and right behaviour. AND I’m cross with myself for my lack of supervision too. (But to be honest, I’m more cross with him, as at 5 years old, he should know better. His age cannot be an excuse. In our family, we care for animals. It is one of our core values.) In my mind, this kind of thing also shows ME up as a parent, and I don’t like that at all!  Bruised egos are no fun.

So, I was faced with this punishment/consequence issue I’ve been grappling with, and contemplating this past week. Nothing like the universe sending me the perfect example to practice with!

The ‘mother’ in me (the persona that repeats what has always been done without much consciousness!) wanted to give him what I’d sweetly call a ‘consequence’ (read: punishment!) – taking away his ability to play with his beloved friends when we got home, sending him to his room for a ‘think’ (time-out), or taking away his favourite Octonauts toys for a week. But I held off on my threats. I did however, fall into the trap of a whole lot of verbal diarrhoea as we drove, telling him how cross I was at his mischief, and what a naughty thing to do, and how he should know better, and how I was extremely disappointed that a ‘wildlife warrior’ could be so nasty or mean. And okay, I admit there was a little bit of satisfaction in playing righteous and rolling out the ‘na na na na na na na’s‘ but to be honest, I don’t think my ranting actually did much good anyway. I think he might have just tuned out.

After my rant and rave, when there was quiet, I spent MORE time thinking about punishment and consequences…

What I know from experience is that punishing a child doesn’t do much to right the situation, or teach a lesson, or show them how to behave or do better next time. It doesn’t allow Ned to do much except feel angry at me for taking away his ‘rights’, and privileges, and playing time. It doesn’t even make me feel better. I felt angry with my lack of control, my lack of foresight, and my general lack of calm in the face of turbulence (even though to an outsider, I probably looked fairly calm but my insides were bubbling like a hot cauldron!)  I was even angry that I momentarily felt like a winner in a (dud) competition. “There, take that, mister. I won.” In fact, I believe punishment makes us all feel a bit ‘blah’ in the end.


BUT a consequence is a whole different thing.


When I changed it up a bit, and focused on ‘conscious consequences’ (aka, natural consequences) there was a totally different thing happening.

Asking Ned HOW he might repair the situation, and creating a list of actions he suggested and will do to right the wrong is something, a tangible effort, that follows closely to the ‘original sin’. It sends the message that HE can fix things. That even when he does something out of character, or silly, or wrong, he will often have the power to fix the tricky spot. What a gift that is. A life lesson.

His choices:

  • draw a picture for our friend of him caring for the chickens and being kind to them as well, including illustrations of ‘whole’ eggs to indicate how he will care for them in future and a basket in which he plans to put the eggs so he can carry them into the kitchen when he visits again
  • doing some extra helpful jobs for me where he can earn a bit of money to buy a new pack of organic free-range eggs to replace the ones he broke (and which are sold by our friends for income)
  • sending a little sorry note that I will scribe for him (we are a big “note” family…thank you notes, apology notes, ‘you’re great’ notes, ‘top job’ notes…we love a handwritten bit of goodness)


So let’s be honest…


So, here’s the thing. I’m going to start being honest with myself and call a spade a spade. I’m not prepared to cloak a ‘punishment’ as a consequence any longer. I won’t tiptoe around the bush anymore. I’m going to own it.

I’m also going to continue to strive for ‘conscious consequences’ or ‘natural consequences’ as a matter of course. I like to think that I always do, BUT I know for a fact that if I’m truly honest, I don’t always get it right. Sometimes I just fall into familiar, or old patterns or habits. But if I get caught up in an emotional whirlwind and do mete out a ‘punishment’, I’m no longer going to sugar coat it as anything but.  There might be a place for both in life, but I don’t think it helps anyone if I (or we) play pretend.

We can’t pretty up a ‘punishment’ as a consequence forever, and perhaps acknowledging and stating the difference might just shine the light on how WE act and respond. I think I give out a ‘punishment’ when I’m feeling out of control, or lost, or too busy, or exasperated by my children. So maybe if I acknowledge this, it might allow me to step back a minute and look at my life, my coping abilities and my life balance.

Perhaps if I’m having trouble responding to incidents by giving a punishment instead of a well-thought out consequence, it might be time for ME to take stock and reflect, and maybe take a moment out.

I’d LOVE to know what you think…



PS: The story of washing up…

The other day I asked my teen to wash up. She hates washing up, and we have a deal in this household that I wash up and she deals with the clothes washing, hanging it out and bringing it in. But this particular day, she hadn’t done HER job, and I did it for her, so I figured we’d swap. But when it came time to wash up after dinner, she didn’t want to do it. And resisted. With gusto.

That day, her new ipad thing had arrived and when I opened her bedroom door to talk to her and plead once again with her to get on with her washing up task (I can’t bear a dirty kitchen in the morning!), she was playing on the new toy, and still hadn’t washed up. And out it came…. that silly punishing threat. “If you don’t wash up, I’ll have to take your ipad”   (How about that for an irrelevant and illogical form of punishment!) Of course, she is 19, and she bought the ipad by herself, so THAT threat of punishment had absolutely NO chance of happening! But I tell you what, it cracked us both up!

I did, however, win. I turned off the wi-fi. She washed up the next morning.

Some battles are worth it!



consequences for kids


Buy my Creative Parenting for Fun book for plenty more conscious consequence ideas!

Leave a Comment