While parents typically sit firmly on one side of the fence when it comes to spanking, other forms of discipline (e.g. time-outs) are a less black and white.  For some, the line in the sand is drawn when physical pain is inflicted. But what about emotional pain? How do we know the difference between punishment and a consequence? Is there a difference? Should we care?

If you have a child then you have to deal with misbehavior. There’s no way around it. The “misbehavior” usually starts shortly after your child begins to crawl and can get into everything. And so begins the teachings of safe vs. dangerous, yes vs. no, right vs. wrong. At some point, this teaching includes consequences, punishments, and discipline. The terms are often used interchangeably but they’re not the same.

Let’s start off with some examples to prep ourselves. Are the following respectful consequences or punishment?

  • Spanking
  • Time-outs
  • Siting in the corner
  • Cleaning up their own mess
  • Changing themselves after wetting themselves
  • Taking away their favourite toy
  • Lecturing

If you’re unsure, that’s ok. You’re not alone. The difference is murky and unclear so let’s turn to their definitions.

Discipline
The dictionary’s definition is “The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience”. However, when you look at the root word and its historical meaning, the word comes from disciple, which means pupil. It literally means to teach.

Punishment
The dictionary’s definition is “The infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense” and “rough treatment or handling inflicted on or suffered by a person or thing”.  It’s a penalty for doing something wrong and meant to make you suffer through blame, shame, or pain.

Consequence
The dictionary’s definition is “A result or effect of an action or condition”. It has to do with following. The first thing is followed by the second thing. If you do X then you get Y.

Still confused? That’s ok. It’s a little bit more complicated than simple definitions so let’s break it down further within the context of parenting.

Discipline is typically used as the overarching concept. It is rare that parents will approach a situation with the intent to make their child suffer. Usually any punishment or consequence imposed on a child is meant to teach the child a lesson. You want them to be safe, you want them to listen and be respectful, you want them not to hit their brother or sister. At the bottom of it all, you want them to learn how to be a decent human being.

In order to teach, parents pay resort to punishment. They may not know a different way, it may be how they were raised, or they may feel it’s the best way to teach. Most parents sit firmly on one side of the fence when it comes to spanking. Regardless of whether you believe it’s right or wrong, there’s no doubt that it’s meant to inflict pain. Therefore, it’s a punishment.

Parents who are against spanking often use time-outs. While not a form of physical pain, it is meant to make the child suffer. It is intended to take them away from having fun and to make them “think about their actions”. They are meant to suffer alone, in silence for a few minutes. If the child somehow manages to enjoy it then the parent deems it not effective.

Lectures are another form of punishment. Even though we typically use words that sound like we’re trying to teach, lectures usually come in the form of “I told you so” or “You should have listened to me”. They typically involve blaming and shaming.

Consequences can be natural consequences (if you forget your coat then you get cold) or they can be imposed consequences by parents (if don’t clean up your toys then you don’t get to play with those toys tomorrow).

Consequences are a great way of teaching the repercussions of the child’s actions. When implemented in their truest form, they are a great way to learn, they are respectful, and they are effective because the child has full control of their decisions.

To impose consequences effectively, the child either knows the consequence in advance or it’s a natural consequence. If they spill their milk then the natural consequence is that there’s a mess to clean up. This is something that the child can do (perhaps with a bit of help depending on their age).

If there’s a rule that your child is expected to clean up their toys then it’s essential that they know in advance that the consequence for not cleaning up is that they don’t get to play with those toys the following day. This empowers the child to decide whether they want to clean up their toys or lose their toys.  There’s no need for negotiation, debate, or a power struggle. It’s one or the other, and it really should make no difference to the parent because it’s something you’ve agreed upon in advance.

However, consequences are often punishments in disguise. What is a respectful consequence can turn into a form of blame, shame, or pain if implemented incorrectly.

In the above example of taking away your child’s toys, if taking away the toys is accompanied by a lecture, an “I told you so”, or an “I’m disappointed in you” then it’s a punishment. It’s meant to make your child suffer. Likewise, if it’s not agreed to in advance and all of the sudden the child loses their favorite toy then it’s unfair and meant to make them suffer. It dis-empowers the child. They don’t know the rules or they are blindsided with a random consequence. They have no control. This will lead to further misbehavior.

To give you a personal example, we have a rule with my preschooler. If she pees her pants then she has to change herself, put her clothes in the laundry, and clean up the mess. A respectful and logical consequence. If I peed my pants I’d have to do the exact same thing.

However, I have had my moments of frustration when it comes to “accidents” and have told her to “Get in the bathroom and clean up her disgusting mess” and I say this as I’m throwing a change of clothes in there after her. Not my finest moment but a great example of how my respectful consequence has gone downhill into shaming her and wanting her to pay for her defiance.

As soon as you feel the need to make your child pay or want them to suffer it turns into punishment. It is no longer respectful or about teaching. It’s about getting revenge or getting even. We want them to hurt as much as we’re hurting (and we are hurting because we feel they are doing it on purpose just to get a reaction and we feel like we have zero control).

It’s no wonder our children do the same when they are treated unfairly. Knowing this can give us a little insight into why our children misbehave or hurt their siblings. They are hurting and suffering. It’s a natural reaction and we adults are just as guilty.

The next time you’re administering your consequences pay attention to how you’re feeling. Are you angry, reacting in frustration, and wanting your child to suffer? Or are you able to keep a level head and a bit of perspective? That’s your indicator as to whether you are truly trying to teach them a lesson or just trying to punish them for an offense.