Punishment vs. Discipline vs. Natural Consequences: Which Best Trains Children?

The benefits of growing up with an older sibling that you respect continues after she flies the coop, and can even ripen with age — especially if you’re fortunate enough to parent alongside her.

My older sister is 2.5 years wiser than me. The same gap separates her oldest daughter and my oldest son. This symmetry allows my wife and me to observe in stereo both how she and her husband raise their kids, and how their kids react. The information is gold, and I’m still a mooch.

A practice we borrowed from them is incorporating the word “consequence” into our disciplinary lexicon when warning our children, following through on a warning, and debriefing them after the storm. When I first heard my sister tell her daughter that if she did not “straighten up and fly right,” she would get a “consequence” I thought, “That’s a great term!” I don’t even remember what word my wife and I had been using, or what I might replace it with now: You’ll get disciplined? Punished? In trouble? A commensurate response?

These and other terms can work, but many are juvenile, playing at a kid’s level rather than pulling him or her upward. Others are seriously flawed, leading parents merely to manage sinful, rebellious, or even just immature behavior, rather than attacking evil at the root.

Three Kinds of Consequences

We like consequence for its three distinct connotations.

1. Punishment. To punish one’s children is to retaliate in an attempt to exact just retribution by imposing pain, shame, or another penalty. This attempt usually is flawed and inappropriate because parents, like all humans, are plagued by sin and guided by emotion, and often operate from a warped sense of justice.

In the Christian framework from which my wife and I parent, it’s important we teach our kids that the consequence of everyone’s wrongdoing is that all deserve punishment from a holy and just God (Romans 3:23, 6:23). Even more importantly, we must teach them that Christ bore that punishment in our place (i.e., the place of those who follow Christ). That consequence occurred almost 2,000 years ago. So to punish our kids now would be redundant and unjust. (I break this down further in the PJ Faith article “Why Parents Should Discipline, Not Punish, Their Children.”)

2. Discipline. Whereas punishment proceeds from wrath and justice, discipline proceeds from love and mercy. To discipline one’s children is to rebuke, correct, and train them because you love them too much to let them continue on their current course.

Discipline is a consequence not only of disobedience, but of a parent’s love for—or “delight in,” as Solomon wrote in Proverbs 3:12—his or her disobedient child. If you love your kid, drop the punishment, lay the discipline on thick (and learn the difference).

3. Natural Consequences. The third connotation of consequence is the most universal, in the sense that every child experiences natural consequences every second of every day, and will until he or she dies (of natural causes, one hopes). Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and mentors bless children when they train them to think with their heads rather than their hearts or less savory parts of their bodies. This training results in self-discipline (a far more enjoyable alternative to the discipline described above).

Occasionally, natural consequences can strike with such force that they reduce the need for additional artificial consequences (i.e., discipline). For instance, suppose your child openly rebels by jumping across the furniture after you have told him not to. Since open rebellion is inherently disobedient and disrespectful (not to mention dangerous), the situation automatically escalates to DEFCON 1. Think of the American Civil War, except that between children and parents there is no question as to the rebelling party’s right to secede. It doesn’t exist, and never did. Open rebellion requires swift, decisive disciplinary action.

By contrast, suppose your child takes a flying leap from the couch to the ottoman, after you have told him to stop such shenanigans, and misses, to the tune of five stitches to the face, a broken collarbone, or some other form of tragic-poetic justice. The pain inflicted by kids’ own actions can go far to convince them, more persuasively and efficiently than a parent’s artificial consequences, to abandon their foolish ways. When God and nature have imposed 80 percent of the discipline, don’t parents need give only the remaining 20 percent? Or is something like 150 percent called for? Recall that Lincoln imposed no penalty upon the South after four years of hellish war, but immediately reinstated the states as full and equal members of the Union.

What About Your Family?

As crucial as it is to manage our children’s behavior, training their hearts by attacking the root of their behavior is more vital. Punishment and forgiveness are divine. Discipline belongs to parents. Natural consequences loom in reserve.

How, if at all, does your family distinguish punishment from discipline?

At what point, if any, do natural consequences reduce or eliminate the need for artificial consequences?