The consequence of imposing consequences

By Genevieve Simperingham, Positive Parenting Coach.
First published in The Natural Parent Magazine (New Zealand and Australia)


“Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.”  ~  Gandhi

When requests, limits and boundaries are asserted by a parent or teacher with the threat of enforced consequences, a culture of conflict rather than cooperation is established.

Threating unpleasant consequences tends to cause children to feel stressed and defensive and is no more effective in gaining genuine listening, calm communication and willing cooperation from our children as it would be from another adult.

“If you don’t clean your room, I’ll take away your favourite toys/ devices for a week”
“If you fight with your sister again, you won’t be allowed to have your friend come to play”

“I don’t want you to .. and if I catch you doing it, I’ll make you ../ you won’t be allowed to ..”

When a child carries the fear that their parent can threaten them with an unpleasant consequence, it creates a tense and emotionally insecure environment for children to live and learn in.  This tension and consequent insecurity can greatly reduce a child’s drive to follow their parent’s guidance and greatly increase their tendency to be resistant or rebellious and reactive.

What’s the difference between imposing a consequence and a natural consequence?  Imposing consequences is often referred to as “logical consequences” or “natural consequences”, yet the intention to motivate using fear and the consequent emotional impact make it completely different.  If a child forgets their lunch box, they may experience the natural consequence of becoming hungry or will need to ask for some food.  If they grab the toy from the baby and the baby cries, they see their sibling’s upset.  The child can clearly see that the consequence created was their own doing.  Imposed consequences, on the other hand, cause a child to feel criticized and controlled.

As a natural consequence of eating healthy food, we feel better, when we eat junk, we don’t feel so good.  When we meditate, we feel calmer, when we stay up too late, we feel tired and frazzled.  Truly natural consequences are the direct results of our actions, which are much easier for us to learn from than consequences that someone else imposes with the intention of trying to make us learn.

Similarly, it’s well understood that it generally takes a person much longer to recover when a trauma occurred through an act of deliberate harm as opposed to incidents where no harm was intended.  Children thrive when guided with love, rather than fear.

I hear a lot of questions from parents in my work, and “what’s wrong with imposing consequences?” is a very common one.  Here’s a fairly typical question that was recently shared by a parent:

How will they learn if there are no consequences?  Just like in life, there are consequences to your actions.  If you steal, you can go to jail or if you lie at work you might get fired. In school, if a kid fights with another kid, they get detention.  I feel like if I don’t allow natural consequences my teenage son will never learn that there are consequences to his behaviour in the real world.”

It’s interesting that when asked this question, the focus is nearly always on the repercussions to the person crossing another person’s boundary.  If a person steals, the real consequence that needs to be connected with to bring about changerelates to how the person was affected by something being stolen from them.  Maybe they felt shocked, sad, disappointed, there may have been a financial consequence for them, which may cause them stress and possibly have other knock on effects on their family. The adult sent to jail or the ten year old who is put in time out and grounded for a week may learn to avoid future punishment by either not stealing or getting better at not getting caught, but have they truly gained help in developing their social conscience and integrity?

So if a parent doesn’t impose a consequence when a child steals or lies or hits, how will they learn?  Consequences are not necessary or helpful in helping children understand and respect other people’s boundaries.  Imagine if the child was supported with kindness and love to sit and have a genuinely open conversation with the person they, for example, stole an item from, maybe a sibling or a relative.  The parent reassures the child that “we can work this out”.  The parent sits with the child as they hear how stealing the item affected the other person, perhaps they hear about the person’s attachment to the item or other ways that they were affected by the loss and the child is also given the chance to express their thoughts and feelings.  If no punishment or solution is imposed, a child is much more likely to feel and express remorse, to freely make amends and will, in fact, gain much more satisfaction and confidence in making amends when it comes from their own free will.

In this second scenario something much more valuable would likely be learned from the situation.  Hopefully the child’s thinking and sense of empathy would have been expanded to truly get the effects of stealing on another person.  Something that often surprises parents when they facilitate this kind of conflict resolution is that the combination of the emotions stirred by the situation and the parent’s loving support often results in a child opening up about what’s been really bothering them that was previously all bottled up inside and resulting in them acting out.

Aggression amongst siblings.  To explore another example, the girl whose sent to her room as a “consequence” of calling her brother names and pushing him over will likely feel so consumed by the grief, anger (and possible shame) of the forced isolation that she’ll have little head or heart space to empathize with her brother’s feelings.  The same will likely be true if the parent lectures, imposes a consequence of doing her brother’s jobs and is ordered to say sorry.  These “consequences” do little to teach a child how to work their way through differences.  She’s not being helped to take responsibility.  She doesn’t gain the emotional support and guidance she needs to express her feelings and needs non-aggressively.  She doesn’t learn any useful strategies for how to manage her anger and resolve conflicts non-aggressively.

And, in fact, the imposed consequence distracts her from the real interpersonal consequence of how her brother is now feeling and what’s needed to repair the connection.

Confidence in communicating well to problem solve or resolve conflict is what allows children to take responsibility and mend differences.  If the parent consistently takes the time to mediate conflicts calmly without judgment, this will help them both dissipate much of their upset resulting in a much greater chance of each child hearing and actually connecting with empathy to how their sibling is feeling.  The children are helped to learn some good communication and problem solving skills.  They listen, reflect what they hear, are guided to acknowledge the other’s feelings, share what they wish they’d done differently and work together to find a solution to the original problem.

When my children were younger and still needed my help a lot with their differences, I would often simply ask “what do you kids each need to come back to peace with each other?” and more often than not, they would relax and go straight to expressing regrets, compromises and making amends.  Other times the mediation would be very lengthy, but what an important investment in time.

Imposing consequences sadly attunes children from a young age to weigh up whether the action is worth risking the punishment as opposed to attuning to what feels right, to integrity and to how their actions truly affect others.

The child is trained to think “I know I shouldn’t do this because I’ll be sent to my room” as opposed to “if I do this, he’ll feel really upset”.

Talking things through with a kid to help them expand their mind and heart to consider the natural consequences of their actions, is so much more effective in terms of helping them build the necessary skills and meet the underlying needs as opposed to imposing consequences, which simply aims to motivate children through fear.

It’s instinctive for people of all ages to have an urge to resist those who threaten them.  Parents can only discover a child’s potential for more willing cooperation and more positive social skills when they consistently model a truly respectful, threat free environment in the home.  The same is true for teachers in the classroom.

It’s not what we say, it’s the way that we say it.  Parents often believe that the child is being reactive just because they don’t want to do what they’ve been asked to do (or not do) and that the child’s resistance to cooperating leaves a parent no choice but to bring in a warning.  But in actuality the child’s lack of cooperation is often related to important needs that require attention.

Learning to identify when our child is stressed and frustrated and learning to notice when we’re stressed and frustrated are key elements of peaceful parenting.  When a build up of stress blocks their mental clarity and their motivation levels, we need to temporarily shift the focus from trying to achieve tasks or solve problems to dissipating some of the tension in ourselves and our child.  Maybe some quality time is needed, or some stress releasing fun and laughter, or to move in and become very present and caring when their upsets bubble to the surface in response to hurting themselves or you expressing a limit.

When frustration builds up for our child, this shuts down their clear thinking and they tend to react from the stress response of fight, flight or freeze.  Fighting can sound like “NO!” and their flight can look like storming out of the room, running away and their freeze can look like completely ignoring you, turning their head away and often being nearly desperate for distractions like screens or sugary food.

The next time you’re tempted to threaten your child with a consequence, maybe pause and ask yourself “what is my child feeling, what might they need?” and “what am I feeling, what do I need?”  Here are some possible needs to consider when your child digs their heels in and doesn’t appear to be very into the family’s team spirit.

Children often resist being cooperative when;

  • the request doesn’t make sense or doesn’t sound fair,
  • the request is expressed with a tone that’s either too critical or too blasé,
  • they need more information but don’t feel comfortable to ask,
  • they fear negative repercussions if they “get it wrong”,
  • they need to again feel connected to and appreciated by their parent or the family in general,
  • there’s a build up of stress and frustration and they need some emotional release through crying, talking or play and laughter to get their energy back,
  • they have some more immediate needs like hunger, rest or finishing a project they’re engaged in,
  • they need to be given achievable steps to avoid overwhelm, set them up for success,
  • or when they need their parent’s help in doing the tasks, maybe making it into a game.

Parents want children to do their tasks. Kids just want to play! Instead of repeating, nagging, criticizing, threatening consequences or raising your voice; centre yourself, go to your child, seek eye contact, be warm, even affectionate and inviting.  A gentle touch or a little humour lets the child know that their parent is being patient and kind with them.  Whenever possible, show interest in their world, whatever they’re currently engaged with before explaining what needs to be achieved or rectified and then calmly ask what they would suggest.

It’s overall the parent’s responsibility to take the first step in drain the tension out of difficult such interactions, thereby modelling respectful communication.