Consequences Versus Punishments
Yes, there's a subtle difference — and science suggests one might work better than the other.
If you follow parenting Instagram, you probably already know what’s hot and what’s not in the realm of discipline. Punishment, it seems, is out — some parenting experts claim it’s ineffective, while others argue that it also undermines the parent-child relationship. I’m generally not a fan of sweeping moral statements about parenting — it’s certainly easier and more attention-grabbing to package advice in stark, black-and-white terms, but the fact is, reality is often much more nuanced. The research is often much more nuanced. Plus, sometimes (regularly?) parenting experts ask impossible things, and parents — especially moms — don’t need to held to ridiculous standards, especially not two years into a pandemic.
That’s not to say that all kinds of discipline are useful. One thing we know from the science is that physical punishments like spanking, hitting and slapping are not constructive. Another thing we know is that parents should ideally avoid what’s called psychological control, which is when they toy with a kid’s sense of self-worth to get the behavior they want — basically, when parents shame and manipulate kids. Children whose parents use psychological control are more likely than other kids to become antisocial, depressed and anxious.
But with the exception of these two important takeaways, the science on the impact of mild punishments is far subtler than some parenting experts would lead us to believe. For instance, some experts conflate the use of mild punishment with “authoritarian” parenting — a parenting style that uses psychological control and is linked with not-so-great outcomes in kids — but in reality, mild punishments are a tool often used in “authoritative” parenting, the parenting style associated with the best child outcomes. Still, research is starting to suggest that there is an alternative to mild punishments — what’s called logical consequences — that might actually be more effective.
First, let me unpack the differences between punishments, natural consequences, and logical consequences. A punishment is a constraint or consequence that is meant to make a child unhappy so that they don’t keep doing the thing you don’t like. Often, a punishment is unrelated to the behavior that elicited it. So if your kid doesn’t clean his room when he’s supposed to, a punishment might be that he can’t spend time with his friends after school tomorrow. You know grounding him will make him sad and, perhaps, prompt him to make different cleaning choices next time.
A natural consequence is something that kids experience as a direct, natural result of their behavior or choice. If they refuse to wear mittens, their hands get cold. If they eat too much chocolate, they get a stomachache. (Note: I do not actually think there is such a thing as “too much chocolate.”) Natural consequences aren’t engineered or contrived; they’re built into the choice the kid has made, and stem directly from it. Natural consequences are great when they work, but some natural consequences take too long to have the desired effect. If your kid doesn’t brush his teeth, a natural consequence might be a future cavity, but that is abstract and too far into the future to make him change his behavior today.
Logical consequences are like natural consequences in that they, too, directly stem the choice your kid made — but they’re similar to punishments in that they’re engineered by the parent to have an immediate effect. They are, ultimately, gentle constraints that require kids to recognize and take responsibility for their behavior. A parent using logical consequences might sound like this:
Since you’re not taking care of your library books, I’m going to have to take them away from you to prevent them from getting damaged.
You weren’t able to leave the play date when I asked you to, so we aren’t going to have time to go to the playground before dinner.
Because you started yelling for me before it was wake-up time, I’m too tired to make pancakes. We’ll have cereal instead.
Research is starting to suggest that logical consequences are at least as, if not more, effective than mild punishments. One recent meta-analysis found, for instance, that logical and natural consequences were among the most effective ways to shape kids’ behavior, above and beyond disciplinary strategies like time-outs and ignoring bad behavior. In another recent study, kids who were surveyed said that logical consequences and mild punishments would probably be equally effective in shaping their behavior, but they said they would prefer the use of logical consequences.
There are a few reasons why logical consequences might have an edge over punishments. One is that they are less likely than punishments to make kids feel angry and ashamed and are more likely to encourage empathy. Research suggests that, perhaps because punishments sometimes feel unpredictable and unfair, they make kids feel upset and resentful, which then prevents them from being able to consider their parents’ perspective. In other words, kids who are punished turn their focus on themselves, rather than on the effects their choice had on others. I can’t believe Dad grounded me! It’s so unfair! They might not learn much from the punishment, other than to conclude that Dad is a jerk.
Logical consequences, on the other hand, help to focus kids on the effects their choice had on others, which promotes perspective-taking. In a 2019 study, researchers showed 9- to 12-year-olds a handful of cartoon vignettes, some of which showed parents employing logical consequences with kids and others which showed parents employing mild punishments. Then they asked the kids questions about how the scenarios might affect them if they were the child in the cartoon. The kids said they would feel less angry, and better be able to consider their parents’ perspective, if they experienced logical consequences rather than punishments. In a follow-up study, the researchers surveyed teens, who said the same thing.
This perspective-taking is crucial: If you’ve read my book, you know there’s lots of research showing that the ability to take another person’s perspective, what’s called theory of mind, is a crucial foundation for the development of compassionate and generous behavior. We want our kids to think of themselves as part of a larger whole, and for them to consider how their choices and actions might impact those around them.
Compared with punishments, logical consequences more clearly communicate why the behavior or choice was unacceptable, too, since the consequence is directly linked to the choice they made. (Punishments often feel arbitrary: A kid might think, why should a messy room prevent me from seeing my friends?) Put another way, built into a logical consequence is communication about how the behavior affected others as well as what’s required to fix the problem or prevent it from happening again. Logical consequences help kids develop an internal understanding of what’s expected of them and how their actions affect others, while also providing an incentive to do what’s right.
Once again, for those in the back: If you’ve been using mild punishments, you haven’t been screwing up your kids. It’s important to set limits, and mild punishments can help kids understand the importance of adhering to them. And you can use mild punishments in a way that doesn’t shame or berate kids. But consider making a subtle shift and trying out logical consequences, because they may be both gentler and more effective — and in the long run, they may do more to nurture the theory of mind skills that help kids grow into kinder, more compassionate humans.
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I’ll be on vacation next week, visiting my parents with the kids, but I’ll be back with another free newsletter on April 19!
I’m excited to be speaking tomorrow as part of the free online Strengthening Families Through Science Summit organized by psychologist and parenting coach Dr. Taniesha Burke. The summit, which lasts three days, includes so many wonderful speakers, including Ned Johnson, Robie Harris, and Michaeleen Doucleff. Register here!