When does a consequence or punishment turn into a threat?

I have a question because everything seems to have so many shades of gray. When does a consequence or punishment (hit your brother and you are unplugged for a day) turn into a threat? Gina Deljones

Hi Gina Deljone

You have asked a very valid question. And I will try to answer as best as I can.

I remember when I first started trying to define “punishment” and “discipline” in my lectures to teachers in the early childhood field, years ago. I came across something interesting. Punishment is defined in dictionaries as harsh treatment. The word “discipline”, on the other hand, I discovered, is derived from “disciple” and it means, “To teach”.

And I have tried to use this principle in my interactions with children, that we teach children values, right from wrong, and so forth, and to help them understand, in age and developmentally appropriate ways. Children very often will not get it the first time, nor the second or third or fourth but they will gradually learn and understand as we explain to them right from wrong, in ways that are compassionate and as we model the behaviour that we want our children to learn.

Sometimes, as adults, we rush to judgment and we do not allow children to fully express why they do what they do, for example, hit your brother. I am quite certain that no one will hit another for the sake of just wanting to hit. There may be some underlying emotions yet to be expressed that triggered the hitting. We can and must talk to the child about it.

We can allow both brother and sister to talk about how they feel about each other. Allowing our children to express themselves and how they feel can be a very liberating feeling and it can help them trust us more. “I can be open about my feelings and I will not be judged”. “I can express how I feel and I am understood”.

We can also set boundaries. In fact, we must set boundaries. Children need to have boundaries in order to know what is expected of them. If we tell a child that he or she cannot use the computer because he or she hit the brother, it isn’t fair if we have not stated the consequences before.

We must also bear in mind that the younger the children are, the more likely they are to break boundaries and to have difficulties regulating their behaviours, even when they want to behave. This is because their brain, especially their frontal lobe, is not developed enough for them to be able to self-regulate. So, as adults, we have to educate ourselves to know what we can expect out of children at different ages and stages.

The thing about threats is that the adult uses them as a form of control over children to gain certain behaviours out of them. “If you don’t eat up all your dinner, you cannot go for your friend’s party tomorrow.” “If you do not behave yourself, we will go home right this instant.” “If you hit your brother again, I am going to take away your computer for the next one week.” Where is the dialogue, the connection between the adult and the child?

Children become very frustrated when adults continue to use threats as a form of controlling their behaviours. Adults would feel the same if our loved one was to consistently threaten us with punishments should we manifest certain “non-desirable” behaviours. The one who is being threatened would likely one day say, “I don’t need to be controlled like this and I am going to walk away from this relationship.”

The thing is, children do not have the same freedom to do that. And so they need us and we are the adults and they are the children. They need us to help them to learn in ways that they can understand and at a pace that that is appropriate for them about morals, about right from wrong, about the dos and the don’ts.

I Am A Human Being Too

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