Punishment and Consequences

StateLibQld_1_113036_Cartoon_of_students_receiving_the_cane,_1888
From Wikipedia, I’m going to call this one punishment.

If you have a Facebook page, you may be familiar with the Facebook feed.  Within this endless supply of…news, you can expect to find an array of baby pictures, recipes for Frito-taco casserole your Aunt Kelly wants to try, and countless Youtube hairstyling videos a girl you were in sports with 8 years ago likes.  I also seem to have a disproportionate number of parenting articles from the high number of friends originating from my Early Childhood BA program, and current teacher friends.

I almost always end up reading them, even in my current childless state.  It’s interesting to see what people think children need for breakfast, or how they learn the alphabet, or the best way to distract them while shopping.  This morning’s article on Creative Consequences looked promising, with the added possibility of making me chuckle at kids who are thwarted during their misdeeds.

I did not enjoy the article.

21 Creative Consequences for Kids is a great topic, and encourages parents to use a different approach to behavioral correction.  After all,

There are only so many times “Don’t make me come over there!” will work.

You are advised to create a job jar, complete with cringe-worthy but productive tasks to keep your errant child busy.  You can also make a jar of assorted punishment, and have them draw one out when they’ve been naughty.  Are they always slow to come to dinner?  Make the last child there the designated server for the night.  I was particularly flummoxed to read that children who are often disobedient in their room should simply have the whole door taken away; removed from the hinges like it was never there.

My greatest objection to this article can be summed up as a firm belief in retributive justice, more commonly known as:

Let the punishment fit the crime

This means that when your child breaks a rule, the next action is logical and predictable.  If Jonny and Jim are playing with a soccer ball in the house again, instead of sending them to a jar filled with totally unrelated punishments such as ‘sit in a dining room chair for 5 minutes’ you can tell them they can’t play inside until they can make good choices, or at least half an hour.  Alternately, you can tell them it’s too bad they used the soccer ball inside, when it’s an outside toy, and they’ll have to find something else to play until they can make better choices, say half an hour?  That makes sense, and Johnny may not like it, but it’s understandable that if he’s not supposed to have the soccer ball inside, he now has to do something else for a while.

I also find the strategy of talking about the problem particularly effective.  For example, if Susan simply won’t get up on time for school in the morning, tell her, when you’re doing something together like folding laundry or walking to the playground, that you’ve noticed she’s been extra sleepy in the morning, and ask if there anything you could do to help.  If she can’t come up with anything, give her a day or so to think it over, and share a couple of things you do.  You wake up to an alarm clock, if the two of you went to the store to pick one out for her, would that help?  How about her packing lunch when you’re making dinner?  That’s one less thing to do in the morning.  Or getting up early a couple days a week to make pancakes/omelets/oatmeal together?

As we’ve all experienced, kids usually have ideas about what they like, but one thing stands out above all others.

Kids love choices.

 My choice is NO.
My choice is NO.

All day long they sit in class and often do things they aren’t really interested in.  You drag them to the store and it seems like 3 hours have passed while you agonize over which tomatoes are the ripest.  They eat whatever is for dinner, and spend the evening desperately seeking ways to avoid bedtime.  Sleep, rise, repeat.  With so little control over their lives, it’s no wonder kids love making a decision.  Tell Johnny you need some help with dinner, and ask if he’d rather peel carrots, wash lettuce, or measure rice first.  If it’s time to walk the dog, ask if he’d rather walk towards the park, or the big houses.  Do you want a snack before, or after homework?  Should we buy bread with seeds on top, or a long baguette?  Should we have lamb for dinner tonight or tomorrow?  Do you want a red pencil or a green one?  Do you want pajamas with feet attached or without?  So when Johnny kicks that soccer ball around in the house, give him a couple of good choices:

Would you rather play soccer outside, or play something else inside?

Lastly, because sometimes everything will just fall to pieces, never underestimate the power of distraction.  If Susan has just painted all over the floor, and refuses to clean it up, tell her that’s too bad, you wanted to watch Frozen, and hope there’s still enough time before dinner.  You’ll just leave the towel here until she’s ready.  If Johnny is going into a full melting tantrum in the grocery store, tell him that’s terrible, you really wanted him to help pick out hamburger buns because you can’t remember what his favorite ones look like.  You could try to find them your own, but it would really help if he remembered what color the packaging is.

I feel fairly strongly that 21 Creative Consequences was actually a list of 21 punishments that had very little, if anything, to do with children’s actions.  Punishment and consequences are not the same thing.

A punishment is retribution for an act or wrongdoing.  A consequence happens after you’ve made a choice.

It’s often quite necessary to temporarily separate a child who hit someone.  If you punish them, you say “I told you not to hit your sister, go sit in the timeout chair for 5 minutes.”  A consequence might be “You hit your sister and she’s crying; she doesn’t want to play with you right now. After the timer goes off, you can come play checkers with us again if you’re feeling calm.”

Everyone likes good choices.
Everyone likes good choices.

At the end of the day one of the most important aspects of teaching, parenting, babysitting, etc., is about teaching children to make their own choices.  When you say “I told you not to hit your sister, go sit on that chair for 5 minutes”, you simply tell a child what to do, and they hear “I caught you doing something I don’t like from the giant list of things I don’t like and now you have to do this because I told you so.”  They never get to make a choice, and assume next time they need to be sneakier.  Instead of doling out punishments, even 21 different ones, try showing your class/niece/son how to make a better choice.

After all, the 31st time Johnny and Jim go to play soccer, they may remember to take it outside.

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, some articles addressing disciplinary strategies might be what you’re looking for, including Positive Guidance and Discipline, Guiding Young Children: 21 Strategies, and this webinar handout that spells out how to help young children manage their own behavior.

Sincerely,

Bettina

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