Why Punishment Is Not Effective, But Consequences Are

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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Being a mom to three young children means playing zone defense every minute I’m awake, never ever being on time for anything, and perpetually staring at the clock wishing for bedtime but also wondering how in the hell we’ll get all of our shit done before bedtime. The days are long and short at the same time.

Our life is chaotic, and sometimes that chaos makes me lose my cool. I’m a bit of a yeller (my kids might say more than a “bit”) and often finding myself “disciplining” my kids with ineffective methods. Like, for example, maybe throwing all of their nerf guns into a trash bag as I exploded in a fiery rage was not the best way to deal with my frustrations the other day… Hmmm.

Because the thing is, kids need to know why they are being disciplined. They need to understand consequences—like the cause and effect relationship between their actions and what happens as a result of their actions. Yes, losing their nerf guns was a “consequence,” but it wasn’t until I talked to them about why I was angry that they really understood. Once I explained that I’d asked them repeatedly to clean up the basement and became angry when they didn’t, something clicked. And when I told them that if they don’t listen or abide by my expectations that they are being disrespectful and ungrateful for said toys, they started to understand.

But none of that happened until I calmed down. And until they weren’t scared of angry-fire-breathing dragon Mommy anymore. Did they still lose their nerf guns for a period of time? Yes. Not picking up our messes still equals losing toys in our house. But the way in which we go about assigning that consequence makes a difference.

Because here’s the truth—punishment that induces fear isn’t actually an effective disciplinary technique. But consequences are.

In an article published on, Montessori teacher Christina Clemer talks about the power of both natural and logical consequences, and how they teach our kids far more about their behavior than harsh punishments do.

“Montessori schools and homes use natural consequences because we don’t want children to behave well out of fear of punishment. We want them to do the right thing because they understand the impact of their actions,” the article states.

How powerful is that statement? Don’t we want our kids to grow up understanding that they have the power to impact the world? For better or worse? How else will we teach them that if we don’t show the natural and logical consequences of their behavior?

For example, being kind = having friends who want to play with you. Being unkind = others won’t want to play with you. Caring for your toys = keeping them longer and playing with them longer. Breaking toys = they don’t work anymore. It actually is pretty simple logic.

The article references a piece from Psychology Today that explains the problems with punishments. “Punishment produces politeness, not morality,” says professor of psychology Michael Karson, PhD. This author also asserts that children will obey when they are being watched and will disobey when you are out of sight. This is because they haven’t learned anything from said punishment and are only trying to avoid it, not realizing or understanding why their behavior is wrong.

If kids understand consequences better, however, they will modify their behavior for the right reasons. And those reasons will help them grow into kinder and more self-aware adults who realize that what they do matters.

Christina Clemer says there are two types of consequences kids should experience—natural and logical. Natural consequences just happen. If you run at the pool and you slip and fall, that’s a natural consequence. Then you, the parent, can talk to your child about what just happened and why.

The other kind takes more parent intervention. “Sometimes, an undesired behavior does not have an immediate natural consequence,” Clemer says. “For example, refusing to brush teeth will lead to cavities in the future, but explaining that to a young child is not likely to change his behavior in the moment.” So we have to assign a consequence rather than waiting for a natural one to occur. Some examples might include making your child come inside if he’s not playing kindly with the neighborhood kids. Or not making his favorite special breakfast if he gets out of bed too many times the night before.

It’s still discipline, but what’s different? The absence of shame and fear. And the lesson is being taught that although we all make mistakes, our behavior does have an impact.

Is it foolproof? Nope. And I’ll tell you what—allowing for natural consequences takes some risks for a control freak mom like me. The author of this piece has let her child drink out of a glass cup with no lid since he was a baby. Ummmmm… That’s a hard NOPE from me. But her comfort level allows for that; mine does not. The thought of glass breaking all over the kitchen floor is not a gamble I’m ready for. But I do very much value her insight into effective discipline, despite the fact that we aren’t on the same page for everything.

Because, as it turns out, between having their toys taken away versus having Mommy yell at them, guess which method made my kids more likely to pick up? I wish it was the yelling, if I’m being honest. I wish it was their inner desire to follow my rules because they just love me so damn much and see how fricking hard I work every day and just want to please me. But they don’t. Because they are children. And just like I had zero idea how hard my mom worked and couldn’t for the life of me understand why she crabbed at us so much about cleaning our rooms, they won’t get it until they are parents themselves. The truth of the matter is, losing privileges is just a better consequence.

Did I still have a conversation about respecting our rules and taking care of toys and our home? And the value of us all doing our part? Yes. But the fear of making me mad shouldn’t be their motivator for following my expectations. I want them to respect me. I don’t want them to jump when I walk in the room, afraid of me chucking their toys in the trash and yelling so loud my throat hurts.

That’s not the kind of parent I want to be.

Case in point: my 5-year-old attempted to pour his own milk the other day, when no one else was in the room. He’s not ready for this (maybe because I have’t exactly promoted this independence since nothing sucks more than spilled milk), so you can imagine the milk ocean that resulted in my kitchen. But here’s the good part—the part that made me proud. He immediately grabbed paper towels and tried to clean it up. He didn’t run or hide or blame it on anyone else. He saw that his choice led to an unfortunate consequence and the next step was to clean it up. I told him I was proud of him. (And that next time he really wants to pour his own milk, at least make sure I’m in the room, mkay?) Because for all the negatives that come with assigning consequences, they also teach important lessons. And that’s a good thing.

Parenting is effing hard. There’s no manual that fits every kid. But this concept of consequences over punishment? This one sure seems to make sense.

This article was originally published on