Crime and Punishment!

Consequences are a part of our daily lives; unfolding with each decision we make. If we hit the Snooze button on our alarm clock, we are likely to run late. Taking the time to stock up on groceries over the weekend’s consequence almost guarantees that we won’t be making last minute grocery store trips several times during the week. How we feel about the natural consequence of our actions is a catalyst for change.

Young children are actively studying the complex world of pro-social behaviors and social norms. As with any subject, there is a learning curve. When a child has difficulty remembering the letters in their name or zipping their coat, our response is to teach the skill until the child gains mastery. Social skills fall under the same umbrella as traditional academic behaviors. This approach does not mean that children get a “pass” for hurtful behaviors. Again, the consequence and the way the child feels about it are catalysts for change. Adults can be helpful by noticing the impact of the consequences. At this point, the child’s feelings need to be validated so that they learn from the consequences of their actions. Telling children how they should feel removes the natural learning opportunity the situation can offer. (e.g., “You should be ashamed/feel badly for what you did today.”)

Let’s look at some potential scenarios which illustrate the difference between imposing consequences versus using natural consequences as a catalyst for change:

Intent to Punish:

Adult: “You pushed your friends at our playdate. You should know better! We will not be going on any more playdates.”

In this scenario, the adult has taken over responsibility for the child’s actions by doling out consequences. Notice that there is no dialogue, and that the adult is telling the child how they should feel and act.

Intent to Teach:

Adult: “You pushed your friends during the playdate, and now they are choosing to play on their own.”

Child: “They kept getting in my way, and now they don’t want to play with me.”

Adult: “You were hoping that your friends would play with you. You didn’t know the words to use when your friends got too close. The next time it happens, say, ‘Move back.’ Say it with me so we can practice now.”

In this scenario, the adult allows the child to focus on the feelings of sadness when his/her friends choose to play elsewhere as a result of his/her pushing. These feelings are the true motivation to choose a different way and learn a new skill.


So what happens when a child already has a skill but does not employ it? This is the area where we delve into imposed/logical consequences. This often occurs when a child persists in engaging in behaviors which are hurtful. Suppose your child continues the pushing after they have mastered assertively talking to their friends. We must first reflect on whether our child feels that they are safe in order for logical consequences to be effective. A child who does not feel part of the group will likely not feel safe, so they will not be able to learn from logical consequences. Their pre-frontal lobes (the area for problem-solving and decision making) are not accessible to them.

Logical consequences should be discussed before invoking them. It is helpful to say to the child who feels safe and already possesses the skill what will happen if they continue to engage in hurtful behavior. “You may choose to take turns building with the blocks, and finish your tower, or you can continue to grab blocks from your brother, and you will work alone so that we can keep you both safe. Tell me what will happen if you choose to grab again.”

The checklist for ensuring that logical consequences allow our children to take ownership of their actions and decisions is as follows:

  • Related: The consequence is relatable to the child’s decisions/actions, meaning that it should be a result of the child’s actions. (If a child is continuing to push or grab, and has the skills, then the child is showing that they need help to be safe. Working on their own would be a safe, relatable consequence).
  • Respectful: The consequence is delivered in a way that does not demean the child, but is done so in an assertive manner. (“You are showing me that you are choosing to work over here. Get your blocks and move to this side of the room.”)
  • Reasonable: The consequence should be in line with the action, and enacted if the child continues to engage in the unhelpful behavior. (If the child continues to grab and throw blocks, then using the blocks may not be a choice for that day.)

It is important to help children as logical consequences are imposed. Children may feel angry and lash out in frustration. At this point, we invoke the skill of empathy while acknowledging their upset. (i.e., “I know you were hoping to keep using the blocks this afternoon. We can get the blocks out tomorrow. Let’s breathe together; I know you can handle this.”) Again, although playing with blocks may seem like a relatively minor event to us adults, the child considers it a loss. Helping the child with a safe loss of not playing with his/her intended materials is a relatively safe, but meaningful consequence.

Natural and logical consequences provide the gift of reflection to our children. These outcomes allow children to reflect on their actions, desired outcomes, and the impact of those actions. Conversely, imposed consequences and lecturing remove the true consequences of children’s decisions away from them. Instead of focusing on the outcome of their decisions, children then begin to view themselves as victims. To become a young adult who truly takes ownership of their actions, we must support our children as they experience consequences, and veer away from rescuing or punishing. The manner in which we teach our children to handle consequences and subsequent upset really does provide a frame work for how they will handle consequences for the rest of their lives!


Resources: Bailey, B. (2014). Building Resilient Classrooms. Oviedo, Florida: Loving Guidance, Inc.

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