I’m often asked by parents whether the punishment should fit the crime. In other words, should a child’s punishment for a misbehavior have some sort of correlation, some connection, with that misbehavior?
The simple answer is No. The punishment does not have to fit the crime. In fact, it probably should have nothing to do with the crime.
But shouldn’t the child be able to relate the consequences with his actions? Isn’t that part of what we should teach our children?
Yes and no. Yes, a child should connect the fact that his disobedience triggered his punishment. But no, in the sense that the child should see a direct relationship between the punishment and his misbehavior.
Put another way, some parents believe that if a child pulls up all the flowers in your garden, then his punishment should be something related to replacing those flowers in the garden or cleaning up the mess, etc. Sometimes, the misbehavior does lend itself to a natural consequence punishment, as in our flower pulling example.
But other times, the misbehavior doesn’t have a clear tie to natural consequences—and thus the parent must come up with a punishment. At times, our immediate response to a misbehavior—especially if the misbehavior is quite breathtaking in scope—we overcompensate and throw everything and the kitchen sink at them, especially if their outward demeanor exhibits no discernable remorse. For example, we want to ground them until they turn 18…in 13 years. We want to take all of their toys to the local thrift store right now.
However, usually that kind of over-reaction happens in the heat of the moment, immediately following the discovery of the misbehavior, when we’re upset or angry or disappointed or frustrated with our offspring. That knee-jerk reaction, while understandable, isn’t the best way to levy consequences because usually, those are the types of punishments that can’t possibly be carried out. The child can’t be grounded for more than a decade. Throwing every single toy away isn’t practical in any sense of the word.
So how do you figure out what to do? Here are some general guidelines to help you when your child needs correction.
First, you don’t have to do something right away. With the exception of children under the age of 3, you can wait to levy consequences. For a preschooler age 3 and older, you can wait several hours before disciplining. For young elementary school age, you can wait a few days. For kids age 8 or so and older, you can wait several weeks. So when your own emotions are swirling like whirling dervish, take a moment to count to 10 or walk away to gather your thoughts before blurting out impossible-to-deliver consequences.
Second, don’t fiddle with penny-ante discipline. You know what I mean, the kind of punishment that’s designed to deter but not halt the misbehavior. Things that briefly get a child’s attention but don’t cause her to readjust her actions only prolong the problem. So don’t fool around with little consequences—such as taking away a kid’s bike or TV privileges for a single day.
Third, the consequences should never fit the crime. This basically means that you don’t worry about whether or not the punishment is “appropriate” for the misbehavior. Parents often fall into the trap of being concerned with fairness when it comes to discipline. The reality is, life isn’t fair and consequences shouldn’t be either.
Fourth, sometimes, you’ve got to make it memorable. This is reserved for really entrenched behaviors or for a time when you think the child in question needs a good wake-up call. So you lower the boom and pull the rug out from underneath him in order to recalibrate his course of action and to avoid repeats of the same behavior in the future.
One time, our oldest daughter kept “forgetting” to give the cats fresh water each day. Finally, after fooling around with penny-ante discipline, I wised up and pulled out the big guns. I took away something she absolutely loved—reading—until she could go for 30 days without “forgetting” to refill the water. Needless to say, it took only 30 days and we haven’t had a major problem with her “forgetting” her chores again (and her younger sister hasn’t “forgotten” either, it made that big an impression on them both!).
Fifth, you remember that you as the parent can do all the right things—and your child can still choose to do the wrong thing. One of my children used to “take the hit” in order to misbehave. I liken it to my in-laws late dog, Rocky, who was a huge Chesapeake Bay retriever. He wore an electric fence collar and knew the boundaries of the fence. Going through the fence enacted a rather painful jolt of electricity to his neck. But sometimes, he would become so determined to case a delivery van cruising down the street that he would pace and pace, then break through the barrier, yelping all the way, to run off after the truck. Rocky simply decided the joy of the chase was worth the pain of the electric jolt.
Our kids sometimes are much the same, choosing to take the punishment (whatever that might be) for the “joy” of misbehaving. That doesn’t mean we stop punishing them for misbehaviors; it does mean that we recognize they have the potential to keep misbehaving.
Remember, the key to discipline is consistency. Do something, but keeping what that something is doesn’t have to be the same each time.
Until next time,