Consequences vs Threats vs Punishments (Includes an Update)

From Janet’s inbox: A parent wonders if reminding her 3-year-old of negative consequences to his uncooperative behavior is the same as using threats or manipulation. She writes that her goal is not only to help him move through transitions with less pushback, but to learn the concept of time, how to manage it, and to feel empowered to make choices and achieve his desires. Janet offers her thoughts on the differences between threats, consequences, and punishments, and suggests minor adjustments this family can make to better enable their goals.

Transcript of “Consequences vs Threats vs Punishments”

From Janet’s inbox: A parent wonders if reminding her 3-year-old of negative consequences to his uncooperative behavior is the same as using threats or manipulation. She writes that her goal is not only to help him move through transitions with less pushback, but to learn the concept of time, how to manage it, and to feel empowered to make choices and achieve his desires. Janet offers her thoughts on the differences between threats, consequences, and punishments, and suggests minor adjustments this family can make to better enable their goals. 

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be talking about consequences, threats, punishments. How these apply to a respectful, effective discipline approach—if they do at all—and how can we be certain whether we’re doing one or another. For instance, most of us listening here I think know that punishments aren’t helpful, but is a consequence actually a punishment or is a consequence actually a threat? How do we navigate this?

I’m going to start by reading an email I received from a parent. For clarity, this is a two-mom family:

Hi, Janet-

First-time caller, longtime listener, so to speak. My question has to do with understanding the difference or nuance between using a threat and an explanation of natural consequences with a three-year-old. I understand generally why disconnected threats aren’t great to throw around when you’re trying to “get” your child to do something, like get out the door to go to school, get in the stroller to go home from the playground, etc. But how about explanations of natural, time-bound consequences used as a reminder and posited as a choice to your child when they aren’t being cooperative or participatory?

For example, “Mama has to leave the house by 7:15 tonight. If you’d like her to be able to put you to bed, you need to participate right now by,” and she gives examples, getting in the tub, getting out of the tub, helping put on PJs, etc. “Otherwise, I’m happy to do it myself.” Another example, “We have to get into the car for the birthday party in 10 minutes. I see you’re having trouble with this transition of putting on clothes, shoes, etc. If you don’t want to go, you can stay home with me, but Mama is going to be leaving soon because it’s important to her to go.”

This is obviously caught up in the concept of time, and we try to use a timer whenever we can to illustrate how much there is left, but at what age does this all make sense? Is it manipulative of me and my wife to explain things this way to our child even when it’s trying to help him get what he wants? Are these just threats in sheep’s clothing or are they a helpful way to explain that life around the child keeps moving and that they have a level of choice of how they participate within that? And also that other people (parents!) have choices and needs and responsibilities outside their children as well.

Any feedback would be great. Thanks so much for all you do.

And then this parent, she wrote back:

One thing, if it’s not too late, to clarify. Sure, a lot of this is about moving things along in his schedule to get him from point A to B to C when he needs some nudging, but plenty is also based in helping him accomplish what he wants to accomplish. For example, he wants to go to the park, he wants to have time to play after dinner, he wants to go see so-and-so, etc. It’s also about trying to help him understand that his participation and “time management,” if there can be such a thing for such small people, means we can get to the thing he wants sooner or have more time to do it. Thanks.

So yeah, I can see that this parent is kind of grappling with some sort of nuanced ideas. And one thing that can help us as a parent is to get some clarity by stopping and considering what we want out of this. What do we want for our child? What are our goals in the choices that we’re making? And this parent implies and brings up some very positive goals. She wants her and her wife’s son to have choices, know that he has that agency, and that he will learn time management. Also, that he’ll be cooperative so they don’t have to keep battling to help him through these kinds of transitions and situations. They want him to know that he has choice and also that other people, his parents, and therefore everybody else that he’ll come across in life, has their own personal needs and boundaries. The world does not revolve around him, and that’s a positive thing for children to learn. It’s also positive because we need to have our boundaries. That is what self-care is in a nutshell, boundaries. We need that to be good parents, we deserve that, and it’s really important for our child to learn as well. So, there are a lot of positive goals I’m picking up here.

How do we achieve those and what role do consequences or threats or punishments play into that? So this parent didn’t bring up punishments, but punishments are sometimes behind when we think we’re giving consequences or using consequences. And really the key here to not be punishing with a consequence is to approach it the way this parent seems to do. Which is, she says, “understanding the difference or nuance between using a threat and an explanation of natural consequences with a three-year-old.” Sometimes I’ll hear people say, using a consequence, should I use a consequence? And just that word “use” is what can sort of make a consequence into more of a punishment or threat. That’s when it becomes manipulative. We’re using something that ideally should be just an organic part of our child’s education. If I do this, this happens. If I make this choice, that happens. So it is, as this parent said, an explanation that we want. Consider this sharing honestly our personal needs and thoughts and what we know about the day and how it’s going to work. So we’re sharing honestly, it’s not about using or giving a consequence to have a certain effect, to make our child behave better, or make them be more cooperative.

Because the thing about using consequences or threats or punishments is that those aren’t going to help us achieve our goals. To have a more cooperative child, they need to feel consistently that we are on their team and not working against them to try to negotiate, manipulate in any way. When we’re helping them to do the things we need them to do and the things that are good for them and we’re on their side. We want them to get what they want. If what they want is to go to the park, we want to do all in our power to help that to happen. But we also don’t want to be doormats that just accept any kind of stalling or behavior or pushback to help a child get what they want, because that is not going to be helpful to them or to us. But our overall goal, besides these goals that this parent brings up, the overall positive goal for us to want our child to learn is that they can trust us. We’re on their team, we’re on their side. We’re not working against them or across the table from them. But we are still taking care of ourselves and being honest.

And when we use punishments or use consequences as punishments or use threats, it doesn’t feel as good to us. It’s going to wear us down and make it harder for us to be the kind of parents we want to be because it feels petty, it feels manipulative. And not that any of us are perfect or should even be striving towards that. There’s maybe a part of us in a lot of us that just wants to say, Well, then I’m not giving you any! and we get triggered to that level that our child is behaving at sometimes. And that’s normal, that’s okay, we need to forgive ourselves for that. But it’s not the aspects of our personality that we want our children to emulate or that will help us achieve our goals.

So across the board, there’s nothing this parent is sharing in her note that sounds like a threat or a punishment. It sounds like she is explaining sort of natural, logical consequences. What I think I could maybe help her with is that there are ways to do that that will be more effective than others. Because when we talk about threats, it’s not so much that that’s something separate from a consequence. It’s in our delivery. We can deliver the explanation of a consequence in a sort of threatening manner, which it doesn’t sound like this parent’s doing, but it’s a common thing to have that tone in our voice that is a little bit challenging.

And I’m wondering if with this parent, because children are very sensitive to this, the way that she’s explaining things is putting her child in this sort of challenged position where it’s even harder for him to make a positive choice. Because when children feel that kind of, Well, if you don’t do this, then that’s not going to happen. Even if we don’t have that threatening tone, even if we’re just, Well, if you don’t do this, this is going to happen and you won’t get to do this, that can be, believe it or not, too much of a challenge for a child. They get stuck there. It’s like, Hmm, I have to figure this out now.

And not only are a lot of these situations transitions, trying to get out the door, get out of the bath, get to bed. As I’ve said many times, transitions are just this sticky place for young children, a sticky, uncomfortable place that they really need extra help to get through. And then especially if we’re trying to be so respectful, like this parent is, letting you know the options and how much time and showing him the timer—it’s too much information, it’s too much choice. I did a podcast recently about the choices that children can handle and the choices that they really can’t. And in a transition, they very seldom can make a choice.

The other element to this is the parent preferences element. So I’ve written a lot about this. It’s a common thing that happens with two parents that the child either is more comfortable with that parent during certain activities or—and this is true when the preference situation kind of builds steam and gets more extreme with children—where they insist they have to only have this parent and not the other parent. What’s often happening there is that the parent that they’re craving is the parent who is having a harder time being clear and expressing their personal boundaries and allowing them to have their feelings around that. I don’t know if that’s happening in this case, but that’s another sticky place. So not only the explanations and all these options and choices that a child has to figure out—I know it doesn’t seem like a lot to us as adults, but to them it is because they’re in a constant transition emotionally, developmentally, and then these life transitions just are the last straw for them a lot of the time. But if I also have to decide, Okay, which parent am I going to please? Is this parent going to set the boundaries I need, unconsciously, that I’m asking for? They’re having a hard time with that, so do I try to get that again? What do I really want here? It’s a lot for a child to try to figure out at three years old or even at four years old or six years old, with other stressful circumstances that may be going on, or just the fact that it’s a transition.

So I don’t know when this parent is talking about Mama has to do this and that, I don’t know if she’s just doing that to explain to me what’s going on or if she’s actually saying to her child, “Mama has to do this and Mama has to do that.” Because it would be more helpful for the other parent, for Mama, to be the one to set the boundary. And then when I set the boundary or explain the boundary, or the consequence in this case, as that parent, frame it positively whenever possible. This parent said, “Mama has to leave the house by 7:15 tonight. If you’d like her to be able to help put you to bed, you need to participate right now by getting in the tub, getting out of the tub.” So if this parent—she says her child calls her Tata—if Tata is the one giving the bath and it’s time for their boy to get out of the bath, then she could be the one to say to him, “Hey, just so you know, Mama’s leaving and I know you love to have Mama put you to bed, or this is her turn, or I know you’ve been preferring that lately, so come on, let’s get out. I’m going to help you out so that Mama has time to put you to bed before she leaves.” Framing it positively instead of as a, If you don’t do this, just so you know, you’re not going to get to do that, which challenges them in a way that makes it much harder on them. So, helping him get what he wants.

And then Mama has to also be strong and clear about her boundaries. Let’s say that this parent couldn’t get him out of the bath or he wouldn’t get the PJs on, he wouldn’t comply. I would lead this as much as possible with confidence, saying, “I know you want to see Mama, so we’re going to do this. Come on. Ah, you don’t want to do it right now. It’s hard at the end of the day when you’re tired, right? I’m here to help you out.” That kind of attitude, confident momentum, that’s what I call this, helping him through as best you can. But if for some reason it still doesn’t work out, then Mama ideally will say, “Oh, I would love to, but I have to go now, darling. I would love to put you to bed. Sorry, that’s not going to work out. But yeah, you can be upset, you can be mad at me.” So in that way, we support our partner, we support the other parent instead of having all the onus be on them.

And in this situation with the birthday party, this parent says, “We have to get into the car for the birthday party in 10 minutes. I see you’re having trouble with this transition of putting on clothes. If you don’t want to go, you can stay home with me, but Mama’s going to be leaving soon because it’s important to her to go.” So, could be more helpful if Mama steps in here and doesn’t leave this all on the other parent. Again, I don’t know if that’s actually happening or if this is just the way the parent is able to express it to me. Maybe Mama could be the one to say, “We’re going to go to this party. I’m really looking forward to going with you, so let’s get you dressed. I know it’s hard to get going and get moving, right? But I know you really want to go, so Tata’s going to help you get dressed and then we’ll go. I’m looking forward to it.” And then Tata tries to move him through with confident momentum, acknowledging that it’s hard, because transitions are. So she doesn’t have to be the one to bring up the consequence again, just doing her best to get it going. And then if he can’t, if he’s really putting up a big fight, just say, “You know what? It seems like maybe you don’t want to go and that’s okay because I love staying with you. You can stay here with me.” And then maybe he’ll not be able to make up his mind or whatever, and then it’s up to the two of you parents to decide if mother can wait at all, if she can’t.

But just to be clear and to be comfortable with him being uncomfortable in a transition and maybe not able to decide. And maybe you discover later that day that, You know what? He was exhausted. Usually it’ll be clear to us why our child was not able to get it together, even with our confident momentum and help and coming from the most positive place that we can. The key to this is recognizing going in that transitions of any kind, choices of any kind like this, about activities that aren’t just, Oh, here you could play with your ball or play with your puzzle. It’s a bigger deal to go to the park than it is to just choose between your toys at home, which you can do easily. Children do need help in those kinds of choices and transitions, and if we go in knowing that, expecting it, then it’s going to be easier for us to embrace the situation and be that positive person.

And it really is about, also, that we set our limits early and we have reasonable expectations. So the expectation that transitions are going to be hard and where are my actual boundaries? I’m not willing to go to this party late. I’m not sure what the exact situation was with the parent. I would be very clear about that with myself, with my partner, if there’s a partner involved, and with my child. “I really want you to go, this is how much time we have,” and then you could look at the time. “We’re going to do everything we can to help you go, because you said you did want to go earlier. But if you don’t and it doesn’t work out, that’s okay too.” That clarity that we have going in is what will make this easier or harder and ease our frustration around our child’s lack of cooperation.

But again, that big picture in mind, it’s this trust, it’s this communication, it’s this we’re on your team approach to boundaries, discipline, transitions, everything, that actually makes for less of these issues. So we always want to keep that bigger goal in mind because that’s how our life is going to get easier with our child and we’re going to get what we want. Honesty, trust, clarity, and the willingness for him to have his disappointments and his frustrations and his sadness and anger and everything else. Knowing that that’s a healthy part of life for him.

So, just to speak to some of the details in this as well: This idea of the concept of time, children do learn this very gradually, but they have this wonderful living-in-the-moment outlook. And that’s why it can be challenging to say, “Well, this is how many more minutes you have until that.” There’s no comfort for them in that future decision-making, it’s not going to be easy for them. A positive way that you can help him understand time is maybe for Tata to say, “I have all these minutes that I get to spend helping you get out the door. That’s my job in this, so I’m really going to enjoy this with you. Here’s the time that we have.” Instead of this being a negative thing, if we can frame it as more of a positive, it takes the onus off of it for our child, takes the dun-da-dun-dun! out of it.

And then, through these clear boundaries that both parents have, yes, children do get that positive message that they don’t have the power to control all the grownups. In a way it’s like, Don’t worry. You don’t have to decide this. We’re going to decide it for you. And really that’s the way children receive it a lot of the time, especially in situations like these that are transitions. It’s, Don’t worry. We know you want to go to the park. We’re doing everything in our power to get you there. And if we still fail, if we can’t, we can’t. And then it’s okay for you to be whatever you feel about that. That’s a place of clarity and comfort we can rest in and be at our best in as parents.

So this parent asks, “Is it manipulative?” I don’t think anything they’re doing is manipulative. It’s just difficult for him when they explain it so much and are kind of warning him of that choice. “Are these just threats in sheep’s clothing?” No, but they could be said in a way that feels like a threat to a child. It’s in our delivery. “Or are they a helpful way to explain that life around the child keeps moving and that they have a level of choice?” Yes, absolutely. But we can still frame this as, Not everything’s up to you. Your team’s going to back you up and help you get what you want.

So what is the role that consequences play in respectful discipline? Consequences don’t work when they’re a euphemism for punishments. That’s when we’re using, we’re giving, rather than explaining honestly the consequence. And I know that punishments can sometimes succeed in deterring behavior, but more often than not, they lead to more and more punishments because they don’t teach or model for children the positive behavior that we want them to learn. And children tend to internalize shame and anger when they’re punished. It creates distance, isolation, mistrust. It’s the opposite of joining with our child, connecting with them as the helpful team leader. We have to be the team leaders.

Also, when they’re unrelated to the situation and they’re given long after the fact, Well, you didn’t do this, so we’re not going to allow you to have your dessert tonight because you didn’t help us clean up or you said something unkind. Children really have a sense of fairness, even from infancy. They’re able to sense right and wrong, good guys and bad guys. There’s been some fascinating studies on this. And they know when we’re using something when it’s a little bit manipulative versus really makes sense and fair. And they may still have a big reaction when something is fair, but they still sense underneath that that we’re being fair, we’re being kind, we’re on their team.

Another way that consequences don’t really work is when, with a bit of forethought, we could have avoided or prevented the situation by creating a boundary or helping our child with our confident momentum. So there’s that point I was trying to make earlier about helping your child get what they want, being on their team that way, setting them up to succeed whenever possible.

So now what do we want to know about consequences that are respectful and effective? They are logical, reasonable, age-appropriate choices, like, “Oh, I can’t let you throw those blocks toward the window. You’re having a hard time not throwing the blocks. You can throw those over there toward the rug or the basket, or I’m going to need to put them away.” And then, “Okay, looks like you need my help. I’m going to put the blocks away.” So we’re stating them kindly and confidently, without that threatening tone if possible, and then we let go and move on. We don’t hold on to the results. Again, for most of us, this means setting a limit early before we get annoyed or angry.

Another point that helps consequences work is when they’re coupled with acknowledgements of our child’s point of view and feelings, always, no matter how unreasonable they might seem. So our child is, let’s say, hitting people at the park, obviously showing they’re overwhelmed. We had to take them home and now they’re really upset. “You really wanted to stay at the park. But you were having a hard time, you were hitting your friends. So I said we had to go. But yeah, it sounds like you’re really mad about that.” Feelings are not reasonable. Feelings are just feelings. And the more we can have that across-the-board welcoming of them, the easier our job’s going to be, the more successful we’ll be in helping children with their behavior and feeling bonded with us.

Consequences help when they’re a consistent, predictable response. So they’re elements of a routine that our child recognizes. “Hmm, you’re standing up now, you’re done eating. Oh, and now you’re sitting back down for more. Okay, please wait until you’re all finished to get up. Okay, now you’re showing me you’re up again, so thanks for letting me know, I’m going to put the food away. Oh no, you’re upset that I put the food away, right? We’re going to be eating again very soon.”

Also, that consequences are a genuine expression of our personal limits, right? That’s what I was talking about with these parents. This is self-care, and I believe we need all the encouragement in the world, a lot of us, to take care of ourselves in these relationships. And do it calmly, honestly, confidently, so that we’re not going to explode with our children. I mean, we’re doing this for so many positive reasons, for ourselves, for our relationship with our child, and for our child to learn really important things about relationships and other people. And that their place in the world is not all-powerful. All-powerful is a lot of pressure to a young child, they don’t want that. They can’t tell us that, but they really don’t want that. That’s when they have to grow up too fast. That’s when they have to have all that pressure to try to control everybody. We want to relieve them of that. And we do that by sharing ourselves, being a person with our child in this relationship, a person with needs. So, we can let our child know, “I’m exhausted. I know you’d love to have two books, but I think we’re getting to one book because this is taking a long time. Can you move it a little faster? Or we’ll do one book.” Maybe that doesn’t sound like it’s framed that positively, but that’s honest, right? My needs matter. I’m exhausted. I can’t try to help you, help you, help you brush your teeth or get your pajamas on or stop jumping around. I don’t have the energy for that. And as much as I love to read to you, I’m not always going to be able to do it the way that you want. I’m not saying to say all those words, but that kind of attitude. Just being real, being ourselves, being fair and on their team.

And really that’s the biggest difference between consequences versus punishments and threats. It’s sincere, honest, open-hearted sharing. And reminding ourselves that we can’t be respectful parents or gentle parents without personal boundaries. Looking out for ourselves so that we don’t have anger and resentment towards our child, or just frustration, or we want to give up, we don’t think we can do this. It’s almost always rooted in that we’re not sticking up for ourselves.

So back to these parents, these two moms that reached out to me, I hope they’ll both feel confident in being honest about themselves. Maybe just try to take the edge off by not setting things up for him to have too much decision-making power in transitions or difficult situations. Children will show us when that’s not working by getting stuck there.

I really hope some of this helps, and thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

And please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and

And now, at last, I have a online course! Learn more at:

UPDATE: The parent who sent me the email kindly responded to this podcast:


Thanks so much for all of your advice in response to my question. I appreciate what you said about the nuance in the tone and the shift in language and attitude. We’re both gonna work on that.

Also: You were so astute in your comment about our child’s parental preferences, which wasn’t even something I mentioned. My wife and I were cackling at that moment in the episode, because Noah does favor my wife and she does have a much harder time with boundaries than I do. (She was also his birth parent, which I imagine contributes some.) We’re gonna work on that too.

Tomorrow is another day and a new opportunity! 

Thanks so much for your time and wisdom.

She later added: “I’ll also share that we have a second on the way (due in May), and I’m going to see if I can start using all of your teachings much earlier with them than we were able to with the first.”

Yay! Thank you! 🙂


1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Emily Miedel says:

    Thank you for this podcast. I have been an avid listener/reader for three years. I have a 32 month old daughter, and we have the worst time with Transitions, as you state. The hardest for us is nightly end of bath-time and then dressing in pajamas for bed (which she insists on doing herself). This is now taking 2. 5 hours daily. I TRY to move her along as she dawdles (she lies on the floor in her towel, walks around naked, grabs books, etc) and will use your advice and say something like “we have to get changed now, I am going to help you” and when I say this she will then explode and scream “DON’T YOU TELL ME!” and “GO SIT DOWN” over and over and becomes a raging ball of fire and tears. I am physically unable to get her dressed or move her along, it is like trying to dress a wet noodle. I don’t have 2.5 hours to sit in her room waiting for her to get dressed so I will sometimes say “I am going to go to the kitchen to do dishes while you get dressed” and saying that just flips a switch and she grabs my shirt, screaming and yelling and saying “I NEED YOU, SIT DOWN, SIT DOWN” crying hysterically down the hallway. I do then give in and go back to the room after about 10 minutes because she will cry so hard she makes herself vomit. It is honestly easier for me to just sit in her room at this point while she takes her time getting dressed on her own. If I try to move her or leave she has a meltdown and it takes 10x longer than if I just let her get changed on her own terms. I am trapped in a toddler’s room for hours each night, please help. Do I just let her scream and run around the house and not get changed if she won’t let me move her along?

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