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.

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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.

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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?

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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. LDS.org 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.