I had a reader ask a question/make a comment recently, that I keep turning over in my mind. I thought I’d share my thoughts with you in the hopes that you’ll share yours as well.
Even trade, right?
So here’s the sticky question/comment:
“I was actually searching for the difference between a threat and a consequence and I cannot see the difference if the consequence is manufactured or decided upon by another person. That is clearly a threat. A consequence must be something that’s natural, or not manufactured. Eg: if you touch the stove when its on you could burn yourself vs if you don’t pay this bill you will have to pay interest on it.”
The answer to this puzzle may very well come down to semantics and philosophy, so it’s hard to give a definitive answer, but here’s the situation as I see it.
When we talk about consequences, it’s important to note that consequences take on a variety of forms. In this comment, the first consequence that is used as an example is a natural consequence. These consequences happen without any interference from anyone else. If a child doesn’t wear a coat, she’ll be cold. If a child chooses not to eat, he’ll be hungry.
Natural consequences can be great teachers. My own boys were allowed to choose whether or not to wear coats on a short car ride in the winter, and the chill they felt in those few minutes was enough to keep the coat battle at bay for many winters to come.
But sometimes natural consequences are not appropriate teachers. Perhaps the natural consequence is too risky (the natural consequence of playing in a busy street is being hit by a car) or doesn’t teach immediately enough (failing to brush teeth may cause serious damage to teeth, but usually not until a long period of time has elapsed).
When natural consequences are not appropriate or sufficient, we use logical consequences. These are consequences that have a logical connection to the behavior. If you make the mess, you clean it up. That consequence isn’t enforced naturally by virtue of making a mess, but has a logical connection. Children who have caused harm to another are asked to help with getting a cold pack. Tweens who haven’t finished homework may not be allowed to watch a TV show until the work is done. Teenagers who ignore curfew have their outings curtailed. Logical.
(I also like to point out that within these natural and logical consequences, we should also pay attention to the positive consequences of good choices, and be sure to reinforce those with as much effort and attention as we do with the negative behaviors.)
In the example given by the reader, the hot stove is definitely a natural consequence, but the late fee for borrowed money is not a threat, it’s a logical consequence. Laid out and agreed upon. And as much as we don’t always like consequences — or having to enforce them — consequences are a part of life and go hand in hand with choices, independence, and responsibility.
Logical consequences may in fact be “manufactured” and enforced by another person, but I don’t believe that’s the same thing as a threat. Here are a few ways I see the two as different:
In my view, threats are used to manipulate by use of fear. Consequences are used to inform choices through the natural laws of choice and accountability.
Threats are ambiguous (“Don’t make me come over there!”), while consequences are clear (“If you’re throwing food at the table, that tells me that you are done eating and you need to be excused.”)
Threats are often issued in the heat of the moment and are emotionally charged (“If you walk out that door….”), while consequences are often laid out as clear ground rules before-hand (“If you’re planning on going out, this is our curfew and these are the consequences.”)
Consequences ideally remain consistent and can be expected, while threats are inconsistent. A threat is often thrown out in the hopes that the fear alone will influence the child and the follow-through won’t be necessary, and often, they aren’t acted upon. Conversely, a consequence is treated as a natural by-product of choice, and consistently enforced as a type of boundary-setting.
The balance of power is also critical to the difference between threats and consequences. In a threat situation, the adult escalates the power struggle by focusing on exerting their own power. With consequences, the power to make choices remains with the child; both the choices and consequences are owned by the child.
Tone plays a big role as well. Threats sound, well, threatening! While consequences are matter-of-fact and even empathetic (“I’m so sorry you forgot to ______. What should we do now?”)
Clearly, consequences aren’t the only tool to use to respond to child behavior (in my ecourse I introduce 10+) . There are other tools to use, both proactively and in response, and many may be used in conjunction with one another. As I mentioned above, logical consequences may play a critical role in healthy boundary setting. Logical consequences may also be used in conjunction with problem solving, particularly if you arrive at your consequence by route of “What can we do about _______?”. Involving kids in recognizing logical consequences builds even more ownership for the children, which is where it ultimately belongs and where it truly engenders personal responsibility.
I’m still working on fully defining the two for myself. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
In the meantime, here are a few interesting discussions on similar topics:
How to avoid conflating consequences and punishments: A-ha! Parenting
Consequences as just one part of the problem solving method: Early Childhood News
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