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What's Wrong with Consequences to teach kids lessons?

"Dr. Laura.... How do you raise children without consequences in a world where there are heavy consequences as adults? How will they know right from wrong when they are never taught something will happen when they do wrong?"...Kristin

This is such a great question!  First of all, let's agree that the way Kristin is using the word "consequences" means punishment. Punishment is imposing something painful (physically or emotionally) on the child in the hopes that he will behave as we'd like in the future to avoid more punishment. If our child hits and we respond by spanking, sending him to his room, or rescinding his screen privileges, that's a parent-imposed consequence, otherwise known as a punishment.

This is different than a natural consequence as a teacher. We all have to learn that if we don't remember our lunch, we'll go hungry.  If your child hits another child and the child doesn't want to play with him any more, that's a natural consequence.  Those kinds of consequences are often great teachers. I encourage parents to let their children learn the lessons that natural consequences teach. BUT if the parent is involved in deciding a consequence, that is not a natural consequence, that is a punishment.

That doesn't mean we don't set limits. If our child is hitting and we remove him from the situation -- "No hitting -- Time to go...We will try again tomorrow" -- we're enforcing our limit that hitting is unacceptable. But it's not a punishment, because we aren't trying to cause pain.  We are simply setting a clear limit to prevent more hitting.  In fact, limits are most effective when we set them with as much empathy as we can, because that helps the child work through the feelings driving the hitting, and prevents it in the future.

Natural consequences work.  Empathic limits work. But punishment, even when it's called "consequences," doesn't work, at least not to help kids behave better.  Here's why.

We all want our kids to "do right."  But research shows that children become more moral, and more able to "do right" when they're raised WITHOUT punishment.  That's because kids who are punished:

  • Are worried about avoiding punishment, not about doing what's right.  So they won't necessarily do right if the parent isn't watching.
  • Are more likely to lie.
  • Are less likely to take responsibility.
  • Are more frightened, angrier, and less in control of their emotions.
  • Feel worse about themselves and are thus less generous of spirit.
  • Don't develop as much empathy or caring for others, and thus are less likely to "do the right thing."
  • Have a less developed sense of ethics, because they are more concerned with force and power.
  • Learn both the "victim" (which is how they perceive themselves) and the "bully" (how they perceive the parent) side of the relationship, so they're more likely to bully.
  • Are more likely to use force to solve problems.
  • Are more likely to feel disconnected from, and disrespectful towards, the parent, and thus are less open to the parent's influence.
  • Don't feel completely safe with parents who punish them, and therefore don't fully process their emotions or learn to manage them.

Punishment cheats children out of the help they need to manage their emotions.  It adds an overlay of shame and guilt that will only make them act worse.  It models acting from fear instead of acting from love. It models using force instead of compassion.  It models hurting another instead of managing our own emotions.

I don't think that's what you want to teach your child.

But how will they know right from wrong when they are never taught something will happen when they do wrong? 

The assumption in this question is that kids will only choose to do right if they know that something bad will happen to them if they do wrong.

This is a pretty bleak view of human nature.  Happily, it turns out not to be true.  Humans are certainly capable of terrible wrongs.  But they're also capable of compassion and decency and great sacrifice on behalf of others. Research shows that kids, like all humans, do right when they feel good inside and therefore generous of spirit. If they don't feel good inside, then kids (like adults) only do right if someone is watching.

So the most important thing we can do to get kids "behaving" is to help them see themselves as good people who do the right thing.  Punishment, as we've already seen, doesn't help them see themselves that way.   What does? Loving guidance.  For parent-tested strategies to put Loving Guidance to work at your house, check out the section on this website called How to Use Positive Parenting.  

But what's the difference between limits and consequences?  If you remove him from the situation because he hits, isn't that a consequence?

Here's a whole post on the difference between Setting Limits and Consequences. 

And for more on why Consequences aren't effective parenting, see The truth about consequences. 

But what about when a child is sorely tempted to do wrong?  We all know what that's like. Luckily, most of us have the high-functioning frontal cortex that develops fully by about age 25, so we can rein in the anger, greed, and the other emotions that get us into trouble.

But children don't have a fully developed frontal cortex.  It isn't that they don't know what's right. (And if they don't, they need teaching, not punishment.)  It's that they can't stop themselves from doing what's wrong. That's true even if there's a consequence.  If punishment worked, you would never have to do it again! Instead, kids who are punished actually behave WORSE over time than kids who aren't punished.

The jails are full of adults who couldn't manage their emotions and ended up in jail. If you talk with them, these folks all tell the same story.  Not one says he wasn't punished.  Not one says he didn't know right from wrong. They were ALL punished!  But they were also not listened to.  No one understood them.  No one helped them learn to manage their emotions. So they didn't end up in jail because they weren't taught right from wrong, or because they weren't punished.  They ended up in jail precisely BECAUSE they were punished instead of lovingly guided, which meant they felt bad inside, and couldn't manage their emotions.

I'm not making excuses for people who choose to hurt others.  I'm pointing out that we want our children to learn not to hurt others, not because they'll get hurt if they don't, but because they don't want to be the kind of person who hurts others.  Our job as parents is bigger than teaching kids to be scared so they don't do the wrong thing.  Our job is to teach kids to WANT to do the right thing.

So if we're serious about preparing our children for a world where there are heavy consequences as adults, we need to help them develop the ability to manage their emotions.  That's the only way they'll be able to manage their behavior. We need to model right from wrong.  And we need to talk and listen -- about feelings, about values, about decisions -- to help our child develop her frontal cortex, so she'll  be more able to control her behavior. 

In the meantime,  just because it's a cold, cruel world, I wouldn't make my child sleep without blankets to prepare him. Would you?

And here are there are many posts on this website about exactly how to use loving guidance to raise good kids who "do right." You might want to start with these:

10 Ways To Guide Children Without Punishment

How to Raise a Moral, Responsible Child -- without Punishment