Discipline as a learning tool, not a punishment.

Firstly, it is important to note that the term ‘discipline’ in this respect means ‘providing learning that makes people more willing or more able to control themselves’. Discipline is not punishment. It is a learning tool, used to encourage socially acceptable behaviour, with the goal of self-responsibility.

Whenever the media reports incidences of a parent publicly ‘disciplining’ a child, it creates a divide between child safety advocates who stand strongly in support of the child’s rights to safety and security, and parents who can identify with the sense of powerlessness, shame and anger when attempting to stop or change a child’s difficult behaviour.   Recent incidents reported in the media sparked me to write this blog to outline some safer, and far more effective, means of discipline for parents who may be struggling. Although the news articles which sparked this blog relate to parental behaviour towards young children, the concept of providing consequences to negative behaviours which are related and relevant spans across all ages, and is relevant especially in teaching our adolescents about socially safe and acceptable behaviours. (I have attached links to the particular articles to which I am referring, but please be mindful that they may cause distress to some people).

Firstly, it is important to note that the term ‘discipline’ in this respect means ‘providing learning that makes people more willing or more able to control themselves’. Discipline is not punishment. It is a learning tool, used to encourage socially acceptable behaviour, with the goal of self-responsibility. In order to provide effective discipline, we must be disciplined ourselves, and provide learning which is consistent in the form of consequences which are relevant to the behaviour. If we wish to teach a child not to hit their sibling, does it make sense to hit them? Similarly, supporting a child to make a permanent change means role modelling that we are able to take control of our own behaviours. We must be mindful that we are not expecting more of our children than we can achieve ourselves.  In some cases, it may be important, or even necessary, for a parent to seek professional support to explore why certain behaviours cause them such a strong emotional reactions, and to investigate ways to decrease their own anxieties or fears in order to open a space of patience and calm to effect change in their child.

I have outlined below 4 unique types of consequences that we, as caregivers and teachers to our children, can implement to promote positive and lasting behavioural change in our young people. Although it may take some getting used to, implementing consequences for behaviours that are related and relevant has been shown to increase the likelihood of a child or young person making a permanent change, as well as them being more able to generalise these behaviours to new situations.

Logical consequences – Logical consequences are determined by an adult and are related to the misbehaviour. To be most effective, logical consequences need to be immediate and consistent, encouraging learning through an action being done over, done better, or done more. This may include the restriction or loss of privileges directly related to the misbehaviour.

Parents must consider how the restriction is related to the misbehaviour. It is not particularly logical for a young person to be grounded as a result of refusing to do the dishes. Examples of appropriate logical consequences may be that a slammed door is closed seven times quietly by the child (gentle hand-over-hand teaching may initially be required for younger children), or damage to property is paid for out of the young person’s allowance.

The idea behind logical consequences is that the child or young person is deterred from repeating the behaviour by the parent implementing related learning opportunities as to the impact of their behaviour on themselves and others.

Need-meeting consequences – Need-meeting consequences recognise the underlying need that is the cause of the behaviour, and the parent meets this need in appropriate and effective ways. The idea behind need-meeting consequences is to assist the child or young person to recognise in themselves why they may be reacting a certain way. It requires the parent to be reflective and open to seeing past the behaviour.

For example, direct disobedience or tantrums may be a response to feeling ‘powerless’ and needing to ‘be seen’. A need-meeting consequence in this instance may be the parent providing a time-in in which the time spent is positive within the family and the child is offered choice and control over some family activities.   This also works amazingly well for adolescents who are displaying anti-social behaviours, whereby a traditional ‘grounding’ can be used to promote connectedness to the family unit. 

Natural consequences – Natural consequences allow the child or young person to learn the actual consequence of a behaviour. It is used when we wish to teach them about the natural order of events. It is not the role of the parent in these cases to interfere directly with the choices the young person is making. Although it is oten worth advising the child of the likely consequence of a behaviour to ensure they better understand the risks, it is ultimately the parent’s role is to support their child in making alternative decisions next time – when they are ready.

For example, if your teenage child refuses to study for an exam, but instead chooses to stay out late with their friends, the natural consequence is likely to be less than optimal exam results. As a parent, it is your job to highlight these consequences, and support them to make different decisions in the future. However, natural consequences are learned by allowing the child or young person to experience the outcome of their behaviour, not by trying to change or manipulate it.

Natural consequences are appropriate if the results of poor decisions are not dangerous, and if you, as the care giver, have the time and patience to allow for learning to occur at your child’s own pace.

Tragic consequences – Tragic consequences are responses to an urgent need to keep a child or young person safe. Tragic consequences are named so because they come with a loss or emotional toll on the young person. For example, a young person engaging in bullying behaviour may be permanently removed from a youth group. A child who is found stealing with friends may be no longer allowed to associate with that person, or may have to deal with the police or court system.

Tragic consequences should be implemented with the child’s best interests at heart, and provided with support from the parent to allow the child or young person to grieve the loss that is a cause of the behaviour.  It is important that the loss is acknowledged and processed, and not ignored or used against the child as this will likely result in the child turning away from, instead of towards, the parent in future.

In summary, to effectively discipline and not punish we need to maintain focus on what we actually desire our children and young people to learn. Wherever possible, it is important to take time to consider our responses before engaging in discipline. Is the consequence natural and logical? Can the child learn a safer or more appropriate behaviour from this? Is there something the young person needs to feel safe, heard, respected and accepted?  As adults and parents, it is our responsibility to role model and to teach the younger generation, and to strive to be bigger, better, wiser and stronger than those in our care.

Denise Witmer (Discipline: Logical and Natural Consequences – Consequences in Discipline with Teens. Downloaded from http://parentingteens.about.com/cs/disciplin1/a/consequences.htm

Dr Maryanne Law Sunde (2015). Consequences of changing behaviour: Downloaded from

Stephen Greenspan. Rethinking “Harmonious Parenting” Using a Three-factor Discipline Model in Childcare in Practice. Volume 12 Issue 1 2006.

News articles referenced: