Hi Dr Justin,
"I’ve been reading your books and trying my hardest to follow what you say we should do. But I’m struggling with one thing. You say we should remember to discipline our children by teaching them. My question is what is the difference between acceptable consequences vs punishments. I find this a hard and fine line to tread, especially with siblings fighting.
I’m so pleased you’re enjoying my books. A quick #humblebrag before we go on: 9 Ways to a Resilient Child made it to #4 on the non-fiction bestsellers list here in Australia and was the best selling title for HarperCollins during February! Exciting.
Michelle, one of the things I emphasise time and again is that discipline is instruction, teaching, and guiding. Punishment, on the other hand, means “to inflict a penalty”, or “to subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc as a penalty for some offense, transgression, or fault.” And consequences? Well, the dictionary says they are “the result of something occurring earlier.”
In parenting terms, consequences are almost always another word for punishment. That is, we inflict “consequences” because of what the kids did earlier. We subject them to pain, loss or confinement (not death) as a penalty. Punishment and consequences are essentially the same thing.
Effective Discipline for Children
So what do you do when your cherubs challenge you?
Under normal circumstances, the best approach is to stay calm and kind, and then explain what you’re after and why. We get the best results when we actually provide a reason for what we’re asking.
Me: Fighting with your brother makes everyone angry. I’d like you to find a way to play nicely or play separately.
Sometimes this works. But in real life it usually isn’t enough. That when we move to “explore”.
Me: Why don’t you explain things to me so I can understand
Daughter: He’s calling me names and he took my doll and cut its hair and then he tried to run it over with his bike… and now the dog’s eating my doll because he smeared it with dog food.
Once we get a clear idea of what’s going on, we either get more information, or we move to the next step. In this case we might be tempted to explode… which means we should explore a little further.
Me: Son! Come here please. Bring your sister’s doll.
Me: Your sister told me you’re fighting because you’re name-calling and you’ve kidnapped her doll, wrecked her doll, and tried to feed it to the dog.
Note… never ask questions you already know the answer to. Otherwise you’ll have to get the kids in trouble for lying as well! Instead, just state what you know.
Son: Yeah well she…
And on it goes. Typically you’ll find that while one person is offending more than the other, they’ve both contributed to the problem. So say it clearly:
Me: You’re both pretty upset with each other. I can see that. I’m not interested in who started it. I’m interested in who is contributing to it. And it seems like you both are to some extent. Fair enough? (Silent nods from the kids.)
At this point you’ve explained what you expect and why, and you’ve explored why you’re not getting the results you want. Everyone should be feeling understood. At this point, we empower.
Me: So where do we go from here? What do you think we need to do to make things work again?
When they share "dumb" ideas, ask for more ideas or for explanations. Problem-solve. If they get stuck, tell them to go and have a think and come back to you when they’re ready. We want our kids to come up with the way forward. They do so much better when we get them engaged in the process.
Remember, ultimately you do not need to solve the problem - they do. And if they can agree to go and play without upsetting one another, that’s the end game.
Does this mean we don’t have limits? No way! It means that we work with our kids on how to move forward rather than doing things to our kids because we’re mad and we want to “teach them a lesson.”
If they’ve broken or ruined something, they need to come to the recognition that it ought to be fixed. We guide them there by asking great questions. “How are we going to fix this? Who should be responsible? How will you pay for it?”
If they’ve hurt someone, they need to apologise. But forcing it is pointless, so we guide them. “What do you think is the best way to make things better? How do you want our family to work?”
When nothing else works
Sometimes you’ll explain. You’ll explore. You’ll empower - and you’ll get nowhere. Life with kids is messy and tough sometimes. What do you do then?
Sometimes they’re tired. Or hungry. Or too angry to reason with you. If that’s the case, let the issue die down. Feed them. Give them sleep, or space.
When things are calm you’ll have better conversations, a happier family, and less need for punishments (or consequences).
What if the problem keeps happening?
There are still some situations where children struggle to improve. You’ll explain things again and again. You’ll be understanding and empathic and try to see things through their eyes. You’ll leave it up to them. No result. Backchat, laziness, and issues remain.
What’s the answer now?
No child wakes up in the morning with a commitment to make hell for everyone in the house that day. Even though it may not seem like it some days, most kids really do want to have good relationships and a happy day.
If your child is being oppositional, then consider the following three possible explanations:
First, think about your timing. If you keep asking your children to do things at times that do not work for them then you’ll get resistance. They may be in the middle of playing. (This IS important, despite you feeling it’s trivial.) They could be tired. There may be any number of other reasons your timing is impacting on their willingness to respond.
This means you’re dealing with an issue around control and autonomy. No one likes being told what to do all the time. And let’s be real for a minute. Most of our interactions with our children consist of us telling them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. We are constantly correcting and directing.
Do they need to do stuff? Absolutely. But it can help when we allow some flexibility (where possible) around timing or even the tasks that need to be completed.
Second, consider your tone. Are you speaking kindly? Or are you speaking in a way that would make anyone want to get away from you? If we’re getting frustrated it shows in our voice. So speak softly, make eye contact, and be simple, clear, and direct.
Third, is what you are asking reasonable? Sometimes we ask more of our children than they can manage. Perhaps they need to tidy their room but it’s so messy they’re overwhelmed. Maybe you asked them to feed the dog or run some rubbish to the bin but it’s dark outside and they’re scared.
This means there may be some kind of competence or mastery issue. While it’s true that we shouldn’t be doing things for our children that they can competently do for themselves, there are times when this rule needs to be broken. It might mean spoon-feeding your five-year-old because she’s too tired to do it herself. It could mean helping your 11-year-old tidy his room because it’s such a mess he doesn’t know where to start.
If you’re still getting no joy, surely consequences and punishments are ok? Here’s what I do in my home.
Me: Kids, get off the screens now. It’s time to get ready for bed.
Kids: Dad, we just need a few more minutes.
Me: I gave you your ten-minute warning 12 minutes ago. And I gave you a five-minute warning as well. Would you like to turn off the screen, or would you like me to do it?
And then I stand there and count (in my head) to ten. If I don’t get a response:
Me: Did you not hear me or are you still thinking about it?
Kids: (keep staring at screen)
Me: Ok. Time’s up.
I turn off the screens. They whinge and moan. I stand firm. They go to bed. I hold onto the devices until the next day.
Do we need to punish our children? Do they need consequences?
Sometimes they need to be removed from where they are for the safety and wellbeing of others. Sometimes that might feel like a punishment. But if we explain why we’re doing it, and then once things have calmed down if we explore what’s going on for them, and then we empower them to make better decisions in the future, we’ll typically find they’ll do better than if we hurt them to “teach them a lesson”.
When our children feel safe from anger and punishment – even when they get things wrong – they can trust that we are there for them. They’ll be more likely to learn from their errors and poor decisions when they feel they can come to us and talk with us… be empowered by us. Children need to know it’s ok to make mistakes so long as they learn to be better in future.
The “consequences” of behaving in challenging ways should not typically hurt. They should, instead, revolve around teaching and learning to be better next time. And that is entirely up to us.
Like to delve deeper on this topic? My eBook Time Out is Not Your Only Option will give you the foundational principles and strategies to completely change the way you set limits with your children. You can download it right now, it's only $9.99 and it's intentionally a quick read (30 minutes) so you can get results fast. If you want to go further still, my book 21 Days to a Happier Family not only has sections on getting discipline right and how to stop yelling, but explores a myriad of ways to improve family relationships, create connectedness and generally make your family happier.