Proactive Parenting: Consequences vs. Punishment


Dear Dr. T.,

Like so many other parents, our major issue with our children is discipline. We make rules which are reasonable and fair, but our children don’t seem terribly impressed by some of them (like “clean your room,” “do your homework,” etc.)

I think that if we had a list of punishments at the ready which we could whip out at a moment’s notice, we would have a better shot at getting them to mind us.

Can you provide us with a list of punishments that you feel are fair and effective?

Heshy and Deena

Dear Heshy and Deena,

From your letter I gather that  you have trouble making your rules stick. And, like many a parent, you are searching for the “magic” that will make the process of discipline work. Unfortunately, despite ads and claims to the contrary, there is no magic; but, there are normal course-of-event  happenings that can bring long-term results. We call them natural consequences.

A natural consequence is just what is sounds like – the expected result of our actions. If we forget to take our umbrella, our clothing gets ruined; if your daughter does not clean up her room, she can’t find her stuff. If we don’t turn in work reports, we may be docked in pay or even lose our jobs; if your son does not do his homework, he may get a poor grade or fail. For so many of our children’s misdeeds, there is a natural consequence that occurs without any intervention by the parent. So, for example, if your teen is late, he will be called to task – unless you cover for him with a note. Because the consequences fall without any action on your part, learning occurs without you being  the “bad one.” The beauty of natural consequences is that they work – and without any negative impact on the parent child relationship! But, take heed – parents need to steel themselves to refrain from rescuing their children so that they may learn from experience.

Learning cause and effect is a critical life skill. It teaches appropriate behavior and fosters responsibility. One of the best ways to learn about cause and effect is by letting things happen, i.e. allowing for natural consequences.

However, unlike natural consequences, punishment not only does not work, but also wreaks havoc on the parent-child relationship. Punishment is ineffective because it does not teach the child to avoid the crime, but rather to avoid the punishment. The child reasons – very logically, I might add – that if I lose dessert because of two stolen cookies, the next time I steal cookies, I will make very, very  sure not to get caught. In addition, punishment often breeds resentment – not remorse. The child is more apt to resent his mom for taking away dessert than to regret his theft. And, most regrettably, punishment allows the child to feel vindicated. He has paid for his crime, the slate is clean, and he and his mom are now “even.” Such thinking does not encourage honest reflection and remorse.

Sometimes, we are at a loss with our children because although we do not want to punish, there is no natural consequence for their behavior. In cases like this, and there are many, you do want to be prepared by arming yourself with logical consequences. A logical consequence is one that makes sense in the context of the behavior – as opposed to an illogical one which feels more like a punishment. Because the logical consequence has a rational connection to the child’s action, it makes sense to the child and is an effective way to reinforce discipline.

Here are some examples of logical consequences:

  • Child violates bedtime. The next night, he has an even earlier bedtime to make up for missed sleep.
  • Child does a project but refuses to put away art supplies. The next time (only once!) – the art supplies will not available to him.
  • Child nags and pesters Mom all day. Remove the child to his room or, failing that, have Mom remove herself to some other area of the home, because people like to spend time with people who are pleasant.
  • Siblings fight long and hard while playing a game. Separate the two children, remove the game, and do not let them enjoy each other’s company until they work things out.

Illogical consequences are those where there is no connection between the crime and the consequence. That would include the ubiquitous “You’re grounded!” “You’re not going to Disneyland!” and “I won’t buy you the new bike I promised!” These kind of illogical threats are a lose/lose proposition. If you don’t carry them out – and most parents don’t because the threats are like killing an ant with a sledgehammer – your words become meaningless, even a joke. If you do carry them out, you are way over-disciplining, i.e. actually going after that ant with the sledgehammer. So, the parent emerges from this fracas looking either like a fool or an ogre.

It is important to note here that as our children grow up and mature, they are more and more removed from our discipline and control. You can inspire teens, but not control them, so you need to rely on natural consequences and your earlier training. If you weren’t effective when your child was six, you certainly won’t be now! The good news is even though your child is an almost-adult, you can also accomplish a great deal by talking/discussing/negotiating in a mutually respectful manner. But, that is a topic for some other time.

So, in response to your letter, yes, you do need to be prepared – if only to give yourself the courage of your convictions. What you want to prepare, though, is not punishment, but an awareness of the natural and logical consequences for the child’s behavior. And, if you’re thinking that such preparation take lots of hard work, you are certainly right!  Like for any major endeavor, being an effective, proactive parent takes lots of thought, effort, and energy. But, the results are so worth it: a better behaved child who has a good relationship with his parents. So, give these ideas some thought: your children will thank you for it – one day!

The Book Nook:  In Balanced Parenting a father and son – a rabbi and psychologist – examine love and limits in raising children. The authors, Rabbi Raphael and Dr. David Pelcovitz, combine their many years of wisdom and experience to explain the concept of discipline with love.

Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email