The Difference Between Consequences and Punishments for Kids

Teach Your Child to Learn From Mistakes

Negative consequences and punishments aren't the same thing.
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All kids break the rules and test limits sometimes. When adults respond in a helpful manner kids learn to make better choices in the future. 

But not all adult interventions are created equal. There's a big difference between giving kids consequences and punishments. 

What Are Punishments?

Punishments are about making kids suffer for their mistakes. They're usually intended to make kids feel bad.

Punishments are often unrelated to the behavior problem and they may be severe in nature. Sometimes, they're meant to shame or humiliate children. Here are some examples of punishments:

  • A 5-year-old doesn't pick up his toys when he's told. His parents spank him.
  • A 7-year-old talks back to his mother. She washes his mouth out with soap.
  • A 9-year-old misbehaves at school. His parents give him an embarrassing haircut to "teach him a lesson." 
  • A 12-year-old doesn't clean her bedroom. Her parents take pictures and post it on social media to embarrass her.
  • A 14-year-old leaves his baseball glove in the driveway. His father purposely drives over it with the car. 
  • A 16-year-old is caught lying about her age to talk to adult men online. Her mother forces her to create a video announcing what she's done. Her mother posts the video online.

Punishments often cause children to feel bad about who they are—as opposed to what they did.

Children who experience self-worth issues become more likely to misbehave in the future.

Punishments can also be counterproductive because they cause kids to focus on their anger toward their parents, rather than think about what they can do better next time. For example, a child may think, "My mom is mean," instead of, "I made a mistake." 

What Are Consequences?

Consequences focus on teaching children how to do better in the future. Healthy consequences help children continue to feel good about themselves while also giving them confidence that they can do better next time.

Logical Consequences

Logical consequences are created by adults and are directly related to the misbehavior. Here are some examples of logical consequences:

  • A 5-year-old doesn't pick up his toys when he's told. His parents take his toys away from him for the rest of the day. 
  • A 7-year-old talks back to his mother. She assigns an extra chore for him to complete.
  • A 9-year-old misbehaves at school. His parents take away his electronics for the evening.
  • A 12-year-old doesn't clean her bedroom. She isn't allowed to use her electronics until her room is clean.
  • A 14-year-old leave his baseball glove in the driveway. His parents take his glove away for 24 hours.
  • A 16-year-old is caught lying about her age to talk to adult men online. Her mother takes away her electronics for the week and institutes new policies that involve ongoing monitoring of her social media accounts.

Natural Consequences

Natural consequences are the consequences that are a direct result of a child’s behaviors.

Adults may allow kids to face the natural consequences of their choices when it's safe to do so and when a child is likely to learn an important life lesson.

Here are some examples of natural consequences:

  • A 9-year-old refuses to stop playing so he can eat lunch. The natural consequence is that he'll be hungry if he doesn't eat. 
  • A 12-year-old doesn't want to wear a jacket. His mother lets him play outside without a coat because the natural consequence is that he'll be cold.
  • A 15-year-old leaves his baseball mitt in the driveway and it's raining outside. The natural consequence is that his mitt will get wet and if it gets ruined, he'll have to buy another one. 

    Punishments vs. Consequences

    Punishments may work in the short-term. Children may comply when they fear you or when they want you to stop inflicting pain or humiliation. 

    But in the long-term, punishments backfire. They lose effectiveness over time because kids aren't learning the skills that they need to make better choices. 

    Consequences help children see that they made a bad choice but they are capable of doing better in the future. And ultimately, consequences are more effective in improving behavior problems in children.

    Sources

    Afifi T, Mota N, Dasiewicz P, MacMillan H, Sareen J. Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results From a Nationally Representative US SamplePediatrics. June 2012.

    Webster-Stratton C. The Incredible Years: parents, teachers, and children's training series: program content, methods, research and dissemination 1980-2011. Seattle, WA: Incredible Years; 2011.​