Punishment Isn't A 'Bad' Word When It Means Consequences For Your Actions

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
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Disciplining doesn’t come easy to me. I have a pattern of not following through on consequences. Puppy dog eyes, a few minutes of good behavior, and promises to make better choices next time will probably make me forget my anger.

It brings me joy to make my kids happy, to give them the kind of childhood I couldn’t have. I hate making them upset and seeing them upset or generally using the word upset as it relates to their emotional state. I understand that’s necessary sometimes to make sure they don’t turn out entitled and spoiled, but on the whole I’m not great at disciplining. And I don’t have to discipline often. My kids are sweet kids who make good choices. They’re well behaved in school, polite to adults, and kind to their friends.

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Then COVID-19 tore through our country and shut down schools and activities and ripped away so many things that felt safe and familiar. Like so many other children, my kids turned to screens. And oh so slowly, screens took over and became the absolute most important thing in their lives. Simple things like making the bed and brushing teeth were foregone in favor of more screen time. Bigger things—chores I needed help with to keep our solo parent household running—were completely neglected.

When my children started lying to me about whether they’d done what I asked them to do, and I started every morning with a lecture about taking care of themselves and each other, I knew something had to change.

I instituted a reward system. For each day that my children completed the list of tasks I asked them to do, they’d get a star. When they reached ten stars, they received a reward. I thought the plan was brilliant. They were excited to get rewards. It seemed like a perfect solution to keep everyone happy and keep the household running smoothly.

Until it wasn’t. The reward system wasn’t as motivating as I had hoped. Maybe because I didn’t plan to give them an instant daily reward—and kids these days are into instant gratification. Maybe because there’s a pandemic and the reward options are pretty limited—I wasn’t willing to promise a trip to Target to pick out a cheap toy. Whatever the reason, something had to give. I couldn’t spend time every day nagging and cajoling my children to do basic tasks like brushing their hair and more helpful tasks like putting away their laundry.

In my mind, if a reward system wasn’t working, the only other option was a punishment system—a system in which if things weren’t done, there’d be consequences, like losing screen times or toys. But the idea didn’t sit well with me. Like I said, I don’t like to make my kids upset and I’m not great at following through with consequences (something I need to work on, yes, and I’m trying.)

Like any parent unsure of what her next move should be, I turned to my mom friends for help—and my mom friends happen to include a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist who has studied behavior changes. Stephanie Roth, owner of Intuitive Psychotherapy NYC, calmed my worried nerves.

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She says, “Punishment is simply a way to decrease behavior and if a reward system isn’t working, there is nothing wrong with a punishment system. We often think of punishments as things like hitting and yelling, which are ineffective because those punishments don’t create a safe environment. But a punishment system doesn’t have to be damaging to a child. Clearly communicating the punishment, in this case taking away a toy, and consistently applying the punishment to the relevant behavior will likely make your kids angry, but it won’t damage the trust they have in you as a parent.”

The idea that punishment isn’t necessarily a “bad” word, but merely a counterpart to a reward, made me feel more comfortable about using the concept.

Armed with this new understanding, I instituted my punishment system. Before doing so, I spoke to my children about the shift. I told them that I was disappointed in their recent choices and that my previous efforts to encourage better choices had been ignored. I told them I loved them, and our family is a team, and if we’re not working as a team, we’re not working as efficiently as we could be. And finally I told them I wanted them to work on making better choices—like not lying to me—and this was the best way I could think of to make that happen.

Then I had to determine the right type of punishment. I didn’t want to tie the punishment to have anything to do with food, because I don’t want to identify some foods as rewards or punishments, or as good or bad. As a result, saying “no ice cream after dinner” wasn’t an option. Then there was the screen time limit option. Which is viable, but also not immediate. To say “no Netflix after dinner” doesn’t tie the consequence in with the behavior I’m currently trying to modify. I settled on taking away a toy—a permanent, in-the-moment removal of a toy.

The first days were difficult. When the things I’d asked my children to do went undone, I almost caved a dozen times to their promises to do better tomorrow. There was a fair amount of whining and a good amount of tears. But the last few days have been…better. They are doing the things I need them to do–without my nagging–and I’m a calmer, better mother for it. I’m cautiously optimistic that punishment is working to change troubling behaviors, while also strengthening our family foundation. We’re functioning as a team.

The truth is all of us—parents and kids—are going through an impossible time. And we’re all coping in our own ways…many of us with too much screen time (I’m guilty, too). What works for my family will definitely not work for every family. But there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to parenting, and we’re all trying our best. Which is enough. Maybe all we can do is whatever makes this impossible time a little less impossible.

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