Parents are often unclear about the difference between consequences and punishment — and that’s one reason efforts to discipline children can be ineffective.

A consequence is the result or direct effect of an action. The goal for giving consequences is to teach a lesson that leads the child to make positive choices. It encourages self-examination, accepting responsibility for one’s actions, the ability to learn from mistakes, and the development of an inner voice of self-control. Consequences give your child the message that he is capable of taking responsibility for problems and can handle them.

Punishment is defined by Merriam-Webster as “suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution.” The goal is to inflict hurt, pain and to get even. Punishment can cause resentment and rarely teaches a child what you want him to learn. It also can be damaging to your child’s self-esteem and does not facilitate secure attachment.

Here are some examples of punishment versus consequences:

Punishment v. Consequences

Behavior Punishment Consequences
Backtalking/disrespect Mouth washed out with soap Child loses privileges until attitude improves
Chores not done Goes to bed early “I would be glad to give you a ride as soon as you complete your chores.”
Damaging property Spanked and grounded Does extra chores to pay for damage
Misbehavior at the dinner table No TV Excused from the table
Lying Sit in the corner with face to wall Must earn trust back by demonstrating honesty
Stealing Yelled at and lectured Makes amends to store or person
Fails in school Grounded at home Studies rather than playing at recess

Why punishment doesn’t work

It backfires. Punishment is almost always delivered with anger. Using anger as a tool isn’t effective — especially in wounded children, who tend to have a high tolerance for negativity, conflict and chaos. Negativity fuels their defiance and strengthens their sense of power. If you are not in control, then they are. To them, being in control is much more important than any punishment you can impose.

It is temporary. Punishment teaches children to respond out of fear rather than out of a desire to please or do the right thing. There is no long-lasting development of an inner compass. This does not lead to self-control or self-discipline.

It reinforces the child’s negative view of self. Wounded children see themselves as bad and undeserving of love — and they often believe they deserve to be punished. This creates self-fulfilling prophecy: If you believe you are bad and deserve punishment, you will act badly. When you act badly, you become angrier, feel worse about yourself and escalate oppositional behavior. This is a vicious cycle provoking additional punishment. Each punitive experience reinforces the child’s negative self-esteem and creates an expectation by the child and others of additional bad behavior.

It provokes revenge. Consequences teach children that when they make a choice, they set into motion a set of circumstances for which they are responsible and accountable. With punishment, children are too busy being mad at you to think about what they did wrong. Punishment makes the child feel angry and resentful. When defiant children get angry, they get even.

It maintains emotional distance. Punishment can create wounds that make children fearful of trusting and loving others. Wounded children believe they must maintain emotional distance to protect themselves from the possibility of future injury. Punishment feeds into their defenses against being close and reinforces a “me against you” mentality.

A great thing to do instead of punish

We call it “Think-It-Over Time.” This is a constructive consequence similar to “time out” in that parents and their child take a break, which can de-escalate a tense situation. The goal is to help your child learn, communicate and achieve positive change. There are three steps:

1. Tell your child to sit for a brief time to think about her behaviors and choices.

2. When you are ready, not when your child demands, go to your child.

3. If your child responds appropriately — with honesty and without blaming others — give praise, a big hug, a warm smile and the assurance that all is forgiven. If your child does not respond appropriately, say, “I guess you need more time to think it over. I’ll be back soon.”