This is probably only because I’ve been in the field of behavior modification for several years, but the word “punishment” kind of makes my skin crawl. People often use it in place of the word “consequence,” not meaning anything harmful by it, but it really is an important difference.

Here’s the difference.

A consequence is the reaction that comes after an action. It can be a natural consequence, such as scraping your knee after jumping off the porch when your mom told you not to, or it can be an imposed consequence, such as losing your phone after using it in class against the rules.

A consequence is meant to teach, maintain accountability, and maintain safety.

A punishment, however, is something quite different. The goal of a punishment is to shame, guilt, impose authority, or harm. The motivation behind a punishment comes from a place of emotion and a need to maintain control.

Punishments can come in the form of drastic measures, such as physical abuse or starvation, but they can also show up in much smaller, less noticeable ways.

Grounding a child can be a punishment if it’s done without justification or if the grounding is disproportionate to the crime. A spanking can be a punishment if it’s done out of anger and without intent to teach. Tools we use everyday in parenting can be punishments if the motivation behind them is unhealthy.

Think about the last time you gave your child or student a consequence.

Did you do it because you wanted to teach them? Or did you do it because they made you angry?

Did your actions hold them accountable? Or did your actions hold them to a standard that can never be met?

Was your “consequence” given in a safe way with a respectful voice tone? Or was your “consequence” delivered with words or facial expressions that told the child they disgusted you?

If your body language, voice tone, or language conveys disgust, you’re using a punishment rather than a consequence.

If you’ve lost your emotional cool and are speaking out of that, you’re punishing instead of consequencing.

If you would be embarrassed to tell your friends about the way your “disciplined” your child/student, then you are punishing instead of consequencing.

Consequences teach. Punishments control.

And let me make a very important distinction here. MANY people who punish children justify their actions by saying, “I’m teaching him not to do that again by showing him how miserable it is when he does.”

They might even use less harsh language than that.

I’ve heard parents say this about physical abuse (e.g. using cords to whip their children when they acted out), or about verbal abuse (e.g. calling their children “retards” or “little bitches” when they back-talk), or about emotional abuse (e.g. withholding words of affirmation because their child isn’t good enough).

Adults can do some really awful things sometimes in the name of “teaching kids lessons.”

That stuff DOES teach them something, but it doesn’t teach them to make good choices even when no one is looking. It teaches them to make choices based on what they fear instead of who they want to become.

The next time you’re going through a disciplinary problem with your child or student, ask yourself these three questions:

1) Will this teach them what to fear or who to become?

2) Is this going to emotionally damage them or damage my relationship with them?

3) Is this teaching them about real-life consequences for their actions, or is this teaching them about punishments that only I will impose?

Choose to think before you act. Choose to value your child’s emotional health and long-term success over your own need to maintain control. Choose to teach instead of punish.