Parents and teachers ask “What’s the difference between Punishment and Consequences?”

Two Kinds of Consequences and Punishment:

Natural Consequence – something that would “naturally” occur as a result from the person’s behavior or choice. An example might be getting a zero on a test if the student missed it as a result of an unexcused lateness or absence.

Logical Consequence – Something that would be a “logical” result from the person’s behavior or choices. An example might behaving to go to bed earlier if the child/adolescent couldn’t seem to get up in time to be ready for school so was missing the bus.

Punishment – Something not connected to the behavior or choice . An example might be a child leaves the kitchen a mess after his snack so his parents take away his Game Box for a day or two. And the most famous one in schools is a detention in which after school or on Saturday, the student sits for 45 minutes because he or she was making poor behavior choices in class.

Do you see the difference? Consequences are connected to choices kids make – connected so strongly that kids can make the connection between a choice they make and the consequences of that choice.

Let’s ask ourselves, “Why do we want our kids/students to follow the rules and expectations?” Is it to avoid being punished? Is it to avoid trouble?   I think we would all agree that we want our kids/students to come to see the rules and expectations as necessary for the well-being of everyone. In this way they are learning that they have responsibility to others be it in a classroom or at home.

One of my own most monumental moments in teaching my children how to become responsible happened while one of my daughters was a high school junior. It was a most painful experience for both of us but we learned a great deal from going through it.

What happens when your daughter who has just earned her driver’s license “borrows” your new car even though you told her “no”? She not only deliberately defies you in taking the car, but in attempting to back out of the driveway, she puts the gear into Drive and slams into the garage door.

Mad! There are no words to describe how mad I was. My daughter had deliberately ignored my needs; our garage door was ruined; and my brand new car was severely damaged. I just stood there in the driveway, taking many deep breaths, and, in my most controlled self, created an I Message (stating my feelings – without blame or judgment – and what I needed right then), “I’m so mad at you right now I can’t even talk about this. Until we can talk further, I want you to think about how you’re going to take care of all the damages.” And I walked away.

The Aftermath

Me:                       I’m hurt, I’m disappointed, I’m furious, and I’m

worried. (all I messages with no judgment and no blame)

Daughter:     I’m so sorry, Mom.

Me:                 I know you’re sorry, and I appreciate your telling me,

                        but we have three huge problems here. The first and

most important one is trust between you and me. I

trusted you to honor my needs about my things, and

now I don’t feel that trust.

The second problem is the cost for a new garage door,

And the third problem is the cost of the car repair.


The last two can be fixed fairly quickly and we’ll discuss

how. I’m most concerned about the trust issue. This part

will take time to repair (I messages and information with no blaming).

            Then, I stopped talking. I just looked at her and waited. She had many more “I’m sorries,” and we cried, and I waited for her to offer some ideas of how to begin to solve our problems. In her adolescent wisdom, she assured me not to worry about the car and door repair “because that’s why we have insurance.”

I can tell you that on this day, and the many that followed, she learned strong lessons about how life works – that insurance has a deductible, that making a claim probably will raise the premium, that it would take her a year to pay this obligation from her part time job, and most of all, she began to learn that breaking the trust held between people in a relationship takes a long time to repair.

            After the first few weeks of my daughter’s giving me part of her meager salary, I started to feel miserable. Hadn’t she learned her lesson? Shouldn’t I just tell her to forget the rest of the cost? My husband and I discussed this endlessly. We struggled between what we knew in our heads and what we felt in our hearts. We forced ourselves to carry through until she had paid all of the deductibles. It took a full year.

The harsh consequences are, of course, the hardest to get through for everyone. All of these consequences were indeed natural ones, and became positive experiences in the long run. Because she made restitution, she was able to repair some of her damaged feelings of self-worth. Because we held her to the consequences, we experienced a deep pride in her determination to complete the restitution. I saw a strength in her that I hadn’t seen before, and I think she realized it too. As for repairing the trust in our relationship, I know she took this most seriously. Never again, did she do anything to jeopardize that trust.

Could a punishment have created all the positive outcomes accomplished through these natural consequences. I don’t think so.

P.S. Along with holding our kids to the consequences of their poor choices, it is vitally important that we also help them recognize and celebrate the consequences of their positive choices – when they’ve faced harsh consequences and worked through them, when they’ve carried through on that school project, when they’ve earned that desired grade, when they’ve fed the dog consistently for a week, cleaned their rooms, been on time for school…. Even when the responsibility is one we, as adults, just expect our children to know, we need to verbally recognize their positive choices and to do so on a regular basis. Just as we describe what our child has accomplished so far during a particular task, so too, we recognize our child’s completion of a task by describing the positives we observed, “I’m proud of the way you handled that difficult situation. You kept your cool and worked to get a solution. That took a lot of self-discipline.” This type of description is encouragement and goes a long way in reinforcing our children’s positive choices.

In our lives, every choice we make has a consequence, even a little decision to sleep just 15 minutes more on a given day. As adults, we are so used to making choices, we often don’t even think about them, but children are learning about choices. The very fact that they do have choices and that each choice has a consequence – good ones and bad ones – is a monumental learning for children in the process of learning how to become responsible.

Copyright 2004 Judy Harmon Holmes


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