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Posted: Sep 30, 2004 10:22


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By: Lon Woodbury

Parents often confuse the difference between the terms “Punishment” and “Consequence.” These terms are often used interchangeably, but there are very important differences. It is very helpful for a parent evaluating a school or program to have a good idea of these differences so they better understand the basic philosophy of the school or program based on what the staff says and does.

The confusion comes from a variety of sources, including manipulative attempts to make harsh punishment seem more humane, or to make a mild consequence seem more harsh. It is important to remember that the emotional connotations for each term are different. For example, a judge will often sentence a youth to jail or juvenile detention while referring to it as a consequence, when it is really a punishment; or a teen will be banned from using the family car for abusing the privilege and claim he/she is being punished to emphasize how harsh they are being treated, when really it is just a simple consequence of their actions. The specific term used in these situations is just a manipulation by the speaker to gain sympathy. The judge is trying to say that he is not really a “mean” person, while the teen is trying to say his parents are being unfair.

When confronted by confusing terms like this, the dictionary is always a good place to begin.

According to the dictionary, punishment is pain inflicted on a person guilty of some offense. It is based on the conclusion of one person about the action of another person, where the first person wants to inflict pain until the other person conforms. It is often the technique of choice by people in authority such as in behavioral modification programs and in juvenile boot camps. The punishment does not necessarily have to bear any relationship to the offense. For example, if a student in a boot camp talks back to the drill sergeant, he/she might be punished by being made to do 20 laps, or 50 push-ups or stand with their nose in a corner.

Alternatively, in a behavioral modification program, the child might not be allowed to call his/her parents until a certain level of conformity is obtained. Taken to the extreme, children have been deprived of food and water to force conformity, which is unacceptable to all responsible professionals. In addition, students have been physically restrained for perceived minor infractions “to teach them a lesson,” or “to let them know who is boss.” This is more about the insecurity and power trip of a staff member than it is about anything the child needs to learn.

Essentially, punishment is a crude attempt to create consequences, but the danger of abuse, or misunderstanding the original action causing the punishment, or over-reacting by an insensitive and/or un-trained staff, or misunderstanding of the intended lesson is a very real possibility. In many situations, punishment might work reasonably well in getting immediate conformity, such as in the military or in working with people who have a reasonable amount of self-control already. However, even those minimal positive results are questionable when the program is working with out-of-control, angry, manipulative and poor impulse-control young people. With these kids, it frequently backfires.

In looking up consequences in the Dictionary, we get an entirely different picture. Consequences are defined as that which follows some action. In other words, it is referring to cause and effect. Sometimes the term “natural consequences” is used, but that is somewhat redundant. Examples of consequences might be: if you step off a cliff, you will hit the ground hard; if you drink yourself into a stupor, you will have a hangover; if you abuse the family car, you lose that privilege; if you frequently lie, others will not trust you; or if you can’t follow instructions, you will be left behind on the next ski trip. The results are not arbitrary, as they might be for punishment, but naturally flow from the offense.

When administering a program, however, it is easier to punish, since that can be by rote and easily handled by inexperienced staff because the punishment does not have to have any relationship to the offense, and building a constructive relationship between staff and child is not the goal. Coming up with consequences that relate to the offense is harder, and requires more sensitivity, training, experience and creativity on the part of the staff. This is especially so because it all has to be done in the context of building a positive relationship between the staff and the student. For this reason, boot camps and behavioral modification programs can have cheaper tuitions than Emotional Growth or Therapeutic schools and programs because their staff costs are less. However, also for this reason, the results from a punishment based school or program are less likely to make positive long-term change. Instead of learning how to get along in the world, as is the intended result from a well thought out consequence, when punishment is the technique the lesson learned is simply to avoid the pain. Pain might be avoided by manipulation, changing behavior with no change to the underlying thinking or feelings, learning how to “brown nose” the staff, and/or playing victim. The punished person decides the staff just does not like them, or plans revenge, or many other unhealthy possible lessons that might last for a lifetime. A student has to already have some degree of impulse control and sense of responsibility for punishment to have any possibility of positive long-term results without trauma.

Despite the connotations of the two terms, consequences are not necessarily “softer” than punishment. Punishment only requires a temporary change in behavior. But, consequences are aimed at changing the thinking patterns of a student and that can be the hardest and most uncomfortable thing a person has to do. Unfortunately, punishment is popular to many parents because in the media, it can more easily be presented as “teaching them a lesson.” This is simply because the harshness of punishment is easier for a short TV segment to capture, than the more sophisticated and subtle process of consequences.

Being clear on the differences between these two terms can be very helpful to a parent trying to evaluate prospective schools and programs for their child. If a program explains the consequences a child will receive for some specific infraction, and you cannot see how that consequence relates to the infraction, then there is a good chance the program is really based on punishment. That might work for some children, but while all children desperately need consequences to learn how to behave and grow up, not all respond well to punishment. It is your job as a parent to help provide what your child needs, not just “teach him a lesson!”

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