Breaking the Cycle of Punishment and Fear: Teaching Children to Problem Solve

There are two big problems with punishing children. First, it is a bad model for problem-solving. It does not actually teach a person anything, and most likely instills fear and resentment. The purpose of punishment is to control someone’s behavior. When we use our superior status to control a child, it builds feelings of resentment, anger, and other negative feelings. Which potentially lead to worse problems like lying and revenge. Punishment is discouraging for a child and promotes feelings of worthlessness, failure, and inadequacy. When fear becomes the primary motivator, it focuses on stopping behaviors, rather than teaching positive messages and finding solutions. Those negative behaviors may return when no one is looking, and the punishment is taken away. Second, as the parent, you are forever stuck with the responsibility of repeatedly giving out the punishment, and that feels terrible.

Good consequences are not punitive

There is a big misunderstanding among parents of the use of “consequences” when it comes to teaching children. A “consequence” is a buzzword in today’s parenting vocabulary, but what does it really mean? The real purpose of using a logical consequence with children is to teach them a better approach than whatever it is they are currently doing. Consequences provide experience for living and expand the child’s ability to think ahead.

Unfortunately, consequences are more commonly used as punishment, and parents see it as an easy fix for whatever negative behavior they would like to eliminate in their children. Most commonly, parents take away the cell phone as a “consequence” for just about every negative behavior, such as rude language, not finishing homework, not doing chores, sleeping late, not going to bed on time, failing to exercise, not coming to dinner…you name it! This is not a logical consequence, but a punishment. Cell phone use is another topic altogether and should be treated as such. An agreement should be made about responsible use of cell phones, and it should not be used as a tool to punish your child. Can you imagine if someone took away your computer because you did not eat your lunch? If the problem is breaking the cell phone agreement, then taking it away might be a logical consequence, if that is part of the agreement.

Parents Feel Powerless

I have heard parents say that in the world of COVID, taking away the cell phone is the only approach that makes an impact on their child. Re-think what kind of impact it might be making. Is it building your relationship, and hence your influence as a parent on their decision-making? Is it building their confidence in their own problem-solving ability? Is it building their openness, honesty, and desire to cooperate? Are they seeing you as a trustworthy ally in their growth and development? These are the qualities that we hope to bring out in our children, and what real logical and natural consequences can help achieve.

Related, Reasonable, Respectful, Responsible

The purpose of a logical or natural consequence (what would happen if there was no adult interference) is to educate. When thinking about using a logical consequence, think of the four R’s (Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline): Related, Reasonable, Respectful, and the child is Responsible for the outcome. Consequences should be encouraging. That is, they promote feelings of being a resourceful problem-solver. If it’s too difficult to come up with an appropriate consequence, then problem-solve with your child. Brainstorm possible solutions with them and come up with a logical consequence together if the task is not completed. Enter the conversation with the belief that your child is capable. For example: “When you kids fight in the car, I am distracted from driving, any ideas of what might help you get along better?” And if you slip and start fighting, what do you think a safe driver should do?” An appropriate consequence in this case, might be to pull the car over until the fighting stops.

Fear is Disabling

Feelings of mastery and self-esteem take root in childhood. Fear and shame are what hold children and adults back from doing their best and from learning new skills. When we are raised with fear and shame about our behavior, we struggle with finding confidence and self-worth later in life. “The only truly dangerous learning disability is not dyslexia or ADHD, but fear.” from Edward Hallowell, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. When we help our children help themselves, and lead them to solutions, rather than using our power to punish, we give them confidence and belief in their own ability to succeed in life.