Alternatives to Punishment Part 1: Punishment vs. Consequences

Through my research and learning about peaceful parenting I have learned that force, threats, and punishment (defined as intentional “suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution”) are not the most effective forms of discipline if our goal is to produce children who do the right thing because they want to do the right thing (rather than doing the right thing for fear of being punished). Punishment would include spanking, timeout/isolation, withdrawal of love or affection, removal of something desirable, demanding that the child does something undesirable that makes them feel shamed, etc. Punishment always makes children feel worse – and you can’t truly do or become better by feeling worse (see this post). Punishment is psychologically damaging. Punishment always pits us against our child and erodes at our relationship with them, harming the one thing that gives us real, positive influence with them – our loving connection. Punishment sends children into fight or flight, where it is impossible to reason and learn. See this article about what’s wrong with strict (authoritarian) parenting, and this one about why punishment doesn’t teach accountability.


Natural consequences, on the other hand, can be excellent teachers. But when a lot of parents talk about “consequences” what they’re really referring to is punishment (e.g. “If I hear any more fighting, there will be consequences!”). A consequence is defined as “a result or effect of an action or condition.” It happens naturally, on its own. When we feel like we have to fabricate arbitrary consequences in order for our children to learn a lesson (even if they seem logical), those “consequences” are never as effective as natural consequences because, if we are the one causing the painful outcome, our children are more likely to view it the same way they view punishment, which sends them into fight or flight and causes them to view us as the enemy. When we allow natural consequences to happen, while offering empathy, our children have a greater chance of learning desirable lessons from them, while also building their trust and connection with us, which increases the likelihood that they’ll follow us in the future.

For example, the consequence of my child messing around at bedtime instead of getting ready for bed is that we run out of time for bedtime stories. We could push bedtime back and still read stories, saving her from the consequence of her actions, but there is a valuable lesson to be learned in the natural consequence that follows when we don’t do what we need to do, when we need to do it. So instead we set firm limits with empathy (the empathy is important here!). On the other hand, we could treat this as a punishment by saying, “That’s it! No bedtime stories! That’s what you get for messing around instead of brushing your teeth!” But then our child is less likely to cooperate or to follow us in the future than she would be if we say (in a sincere tone), “Oh sweetie, I know how much you want to read bedtime stories. That’s your favorite part of the bedtime routine, huh? But sweetheart, we’re out of time. I’m sorry this is hard. Maybe tomorrow night if you hurry fast enough we might have time for an extra story!” Empathizing through the natural consequence (while staying firm) is more effective and more loving than punishment.

mother wipes the tears of his little daughter

But wait – God is the perfect parent, and He punishes His children when they’re wicked, right? Knowing what I know about discipline and feeling its truth so strongly,  I was really confused by the fact that the scriptures talk over and over about God’s wrath and about Him punishing the wicked. I had a hard time reconciling that in my mind with the idea of a gentle, merciful, loving God – especially when I consider how the Savior handled situations with sinners (see below). Surely our Heavenly Father knows how His children learn best, and what will change their hearts (and thus, their behavior). So what was I missing? Why would He use punishment?

Before I go on, let me be clear that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and that we more than likely will not understand all of His ways in this life. Whatever the Lord does, or whatever He requires, is right – even if we don’t understand His reasons – of that I have no doubt. If He chooses to use punishment, then that is right. But for the sake of understanding what His will is in my parenting, I have sought to understand this issue better. Is punishment (intentionally causing pain) His way?

find faith and keep trying_thumb[6]

We know that “there is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20-21). Likewise, if we break those laws then the blessings attached to them do not come to us.

We know that the natural consequences of sin are always negative, and the Lord doesn’t intervene to protect us from the effects of our sins unless we fully and sincerely repent (see 2 Nephi 2:7 and D&C 19:16). These natural consequences are often very effective. But what about punishment? Does God, in His wrath, actually inflict punishment on the wicked? Or is their ‘punishment’ simply a natural result of breaking eternal laws?

In the Book of Mormon there is a story about a Nephite army and a Lamanite army. The formerly-righteous Nephites had become hardened and vengeful and blood-thirsty and filled with a desire to destroy their enemies, the Lamanites. Mormon, the Nephites’ righteous commander, refused to continue leading them from that point forward because of their wickedness, but they went to battle anyway. Mormon 4:4-5 reads, “And it was because the armies of the Nephites went up unto the Lamanites that they began to be smitten; for were it not for that, the Lamanites could have had no power over them. But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed” (emphasis added). God didn’t force the Lamanites to destroy the Nephites because of their wickedness. I don’t believe that force and destruction are part of His nature. But He did allow it to happen, because the Nephites refused to repent and thus were beyond the reach of His mercy (see Mosiah 2:38-39).

I wonder if sometimes when men in the scriptures talk about punishment, they’re really referring to natural (negative) consequences of sin that God allows to happen because the sinners refuse to repent. Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics and defining punishment and rewards/blessings: Following eternal laws results in positive natural consequences called blessings (which are attached to the specific laws, and which the Lord delights in bestowing); and perhaps breaking eternal laws – sinning – without repenting results in negative natural consequences called punishments, which are attached to those crimes (see 2 Nephi 2:10). I don’t think God comes up with arbitrary consequences for our actions; rather, our consequences are already affixed. Living a life full of love and service naturally leads to positive relationships and connections with others, as well as the ability to be influenced by the Spirit. Living a life of murder and bloodshed naturally leads to enemies who seek to destroy you, as well as other negative consequences of sin.

We might better understand this as the law of justice. says, “In scriptural terms, justice is the unchanging law that brings consequences for actions. Because of the law of justice, we receive blessings when we obey God’s commandments. The law of justice also demands that a penalty be paid for every sin we commit. When the Savior carried out the Atonement, He took our sins upon Himself. He was able to “answer the ends of the law” (2 Nephi 2:7) because He subjected Himself to the penalty that the law required for our sins. In doing so, He “satisfied the demands of justice” and extended mercy to everyone who repents and follows Him (see Mosiah 15:9; Alma 34:14-16). Because He has paid the price for our sins, we will not have to suffer that punishment if we repent (see D&C 19:15-20).” So mercy does not negate the need for that penalty, or “punishment,” to be paid, but rather, it allows for Someone else to pay that price on our behalf if we will receive Him and repent. When we refuse to repent, that penalty must still be paid — just as “what goes up must come down,” all sin must be paid for. So that punishment when we refuse to repent is not our Heavenly Father’s way of getting back at us or trying to hurt us, it is simply the law of justice being upheld. The Lord’s definition of punishment does not appear to be the same as man’s.

How about the definition of wrath? I really liked this perspective on the wrath of God: “The works of God are works of love and restoration. They always have been, and always will be. . . . Those who are opposed to God’s love and restoration in the world will experience an aspect of God’s love that feels like wrath, because the forces that oppose love will one day be either transformed or eliminated from creation. . . . God’s story . . . [is] a story of purging all that is not loving, until everything is restored and only love remains. . . . Love purges war, famine, disease, oppression, hatred, violence, and everything else that fights against love. It’s what love does. . . .  Those who refuse to partner with love, and insist on continuing to fight in opposition to all that love does, will experience a side of love that does not feel like love. To them, it might even feel like wrath. Thus, when we affirm the “wrath of God” it’s not so much an affirmation of wrath at all—but an affirmation of love.” In other words, I believe that God’s wrath is not anger or hatred toward His children, but toward sin and evil, which He naturally purges because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And those on the other side, who refuse to join with Him, will naturally be purged as well. From the New Testament student manual: “The “wrath” of God is not hostility toward mankind; rather, it is rejection of sin.” So perhaps “punishment” is a result of His wrath — toward sin and all that attach themselves to sin and refuse to let go.

So then how does God discipline His children? (And remember that ‘discipline’ means ‘to teach.’) Check out part 2 where we’ll look at God’s character and the way He disciplines us.

Why I Don’t Make My Children “Pay the Price” For Their Misbehavior (And What I’ve Found That Works Better)

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I was reading one day about disciplining children and, more specifically, about giving consequences. The author spoke of the importance of responding to negative behavior right away, as well as making sure the consequence is age-appropriate and relevant to the situation (that it “fits the crime”). The author then stressed that it’s necessary that the child “pays the price” (i.e. suffers) for the thing they have done wrong. Something about this felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate why at the time. As I’ve thought about it in the weeks and months since, I have had two main thoughts form in my mind.

First, if our focus is on making our child pay for what they have done, then this is not really a consequence (i.e. the result of a choice), but rather a punishment (i.e. “to subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc., as a penalty for some offense,  transgression, or fault”–according to the dictionary). The word discipline means ‘to teach,’ which I think most of us would agree is our goal. We want our children to learn to do what’s right. Consequences that occur naturally can be excellent teachers. But what about punishment? When a child (or anyone) is subject to punishment (pain caused intentionally by another person), they shift out of their “reasoning brain” into their “reptilian brain” (fight or flight). The learning centers of their brain shut down. They literally can’t learn the lesson we want them to learn while they’re in fight or flight. Additionally, punishment hurts our connection with our child (just as it would strain our connection and relationship with our spouse if they intentionally inflicted pain on us), and thus, their likelihood of cooperating with us in the future. Punishment simply is not the most effective or healthy form of discipline.


Second, and more importantly, Someone else has already paid the price for every sin, mistake, and wrong decision that each of us has or will ever make. He suffered, bled from every pore, and gave His very life to pay that price. We learn from modern scripture that “God [has] suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19:16). For this reason, rather than teaching my children that they must pay a price for their misbehavior, I want to teach them about the One who has already paid the price for every misdeed. I want to teach them to recognize and right their wrongs, with His grace. I want to teach them early about repentance and how to use this precious gift, so that by the time they reach the age of accountability (see D&C 29:46-47), they are familiar with the application of repentance.


How do I plan to teach my children about repentance from the time they’re very young?

In her book and in her course, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham teaches parents how to empower their children to make amends, using what she calls The Three Rs: Reflect, Repair, and Responsibility (see below). Reading and listening to her description of this tool brought to my mind the repentance “steps.” Then a couple months ago I was visiting with my sister-in-law and a friend (we’ll call this friend Sara), and we were talking about discipline. Sara shared with us a new approach to disciplining her kids that she had begun using, which was bearing awesome results. She came up with this new approach (I believe with the guidance of the Spirit). It really resonated with me and I felt that this was a link I had been missing.

Sara invites the Spirit when correcting or disciplining her children by singing a hymn or primary song, telling a story or parable that teaches a principle that relates to the child’s infraction, and praying with her child(ren). The details of how this scenario looks for her family differ from the way I have adapted it for my own family, but the principle is the same. Likewise, you may adapt it to better work for your own family. I have only used this approach a few times so far, but it made a remarkable difference each time.

These are the steps I have used:

  1. Calm myself. This approach to discipline is not effective when I’m angry! The Spirit must be part of this process. I tell myself “it’s not an emergency.” I shake out my hands and breathe deeply. I remind myself that my child is acting this way because she’s struggling and needs my help to handle the situation appropriately so that she doesn’t do something she’ll really regret.
  2. Empathize and set (or enforce) a limit. This must be done with empathy, kindness and love, as well as clarity and firmness. “You were upset when he took your blankie because that’s your special blankie, right?…You were so mad, but sweetie, I won’t let you hit your brother. Hitting hurts.”
  3. The Three R’s (*adapted from Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids)
    1. Reflect – In a non-attacking tone, ask the child to tell me what happened, and really listen to her side. Without blame or shame, help her recognize that her actions hurt someone. Identify the what, why, and whether that action was safe/appropriate. Dr Markham says, “When you ask open-ended questions and help your child “narrate” what happened, her rational brain gains understanding. This gives her more control over her emotions and behavior in the future.” “How did you feel when brother took your blankie? And then what happened? How did that make your brother feel?”
    2. Repair – Ask the child what she can do to fix things with the person she hurt. Offer ideas if necessary. If the child isn’t ready to repair, I don’t force it. This means that she is still feeling too angry or threatened, so I may go back a few steps if necessary. Forcing an apology won’t actually help her learn to feel remorse or make amends on her own in the future. “I know you love your brother and you don’t really want to hurt him, but when you hit him that did hurt him. So how can you fix your relationship with him? What would you like to do to help him feel better?” 
    3. Responsibility – Part of helping a child learn to take responsibility is helping them be able to respond differently in the future. Help her recognize that she always has a choice to make and that that choice will impact those around her. Help her be “response-able” (able to respond appropriately). Equip her with appropriate alternative responses for future similar situations. If appropriate, have her role-play. This helps her know how to make necessary changes moving forward. “What could you do next time something like this happens, instead of hitting?” Discuss strategies for calming down, and then offer suggestions for alternative actions, if necessary, such as finding brother’s blankie and trading him. Practice right then if appropriate.  (*Note: I don’t expect my kids to actually remember to do this the very next time. It usually takes being taught correct behavior over and over again before it sticks. Just look at us with our “favorite sins,” or with the counsel we constantly hear from the Lord. He has to repeat Himself a lot too.)
  4. Once the child is calm (remember they can’t learn or reason while in fight or flight), use a parable/story or song to teach the correct behavior. Jesus often taught in parables. I think this is a very effective teaching tool when teaching anyone, but especially children. This also helps invite the Spirit. The story can be gospel-based, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. “Let me tell you a little story about Jesus. Do you know what Jesus did when people treated Him badly? He was kind to them and He helped them, even when they were mean. In fact, right before He died, He prayed and asked Heavenly Father to forgive the people who were trying to kill Him.” Sing  I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus.
  5. End with prayer. Ask forgiveness, for help to do better next time, and for an increased measure of love in our home. Thank Heavenly Father for sending His Son to make it possible for us to repent. Either parent or child can offer the prayer.

This might seem like a lot, but it doesn’t have to take long. The whole encounter may only take a few minutes, but even if it takes longer, when it’s over we are left feeling love and encouragement and harmony rather than frustration and disconnection. And I feel confident that, with the help of the Spirit, I am helping my children truly learn the desired lessons that will lead to emotional intelligence, positive behavior, and the ability repent when they stumble.

Obviously some encounters are going to take longer or be more involved. Sometimes it might be necessary to remove the child from the situation, or to physically stop them from doing something. Other times it might be necessary to save the teaching for a later time if everyone is too upset in the moment. And obviously the age, temperament, etc. of the child are going to impact what takes place and how.

I don’t necessarily follow every single step listed above every time my child misbehaves, nor do I necessarily follow the steps in this exact order every time – this is just a guideline. Cater this to your child’s individual needs and follow the Spirit. One thing that has been helpful for me is to make a list in advance of stories or songs I might use for scenarios that tend to pop up often. In the heat of the moment it can be hard to think on my feet.

The most important thing here for me is inviting and involving the Spirit in disciplining my children. My goal is to teach them in a way they can really learn, and to instill in them a desire to do what’s right, for the sake of doing what’s right. I believe that can really only be accomplished with the help of the Spirit.