Dear Joanna and Julie,

Firstly, I really love your new book on how to talk to little kids. I think it’s an amazing book and very easy to read with great real life examples.

Secondly, your book mentions not to punish kids for their misbehavior, rather teach them how to fix their mistakes so they know how to solve future conflicts as they grow older. Now how does that prepare them for the real world where people receive tickets for not speeding or passing stop signs. Another example is if an employee repeatedly comes late to work or doesn’t get along with his coworkers, he may be fired. Aren’t these punishments/consequences for an adult’s wrong doings?
Please explain.
Thanks so much,

Real Life Mom


Dear RLM,

You’re asking the important questions! I’m going to start with your last example. If an employee repeatedly comes to work late, (or fails to perform the job adequately in other ways) he may be fired.  Why is the owner of the business firing this guy? Not in order to punish him, but to protect his business. In our book we advocate taking action to protect yourself, other people, and property.

The respectful way to approach this miserable employee would be to tell him how you feel, what you need, and to take action if he is not able to carry out his job. The final blow might sound something like this:

“Hey Bud, I need to be able to count on my delivery person to be here at 8am every morning. I hear that you’re having car trouble, and that public transportation is unreliable, and your shoes are pinching your toes too much to walk.  Unfortunately I have to hire someone else who is able to get here on time.”

That is very different from a punishment, which might sound something like this:

“Hey Bud, you’ve been late for three mornings in a row. Now I’m going to punish you so that you can learn to behave better. Every time you’re late, I will confiscate your cigarettes and candy bars. Or make you sit on this uncomfortable stool for 20 minutes. Or smack you on the bottom.”

In the first scenario Bud is sad that he lost his job, but perhaps he is able to reflect on the fact that he needs to make more of an effort to get to work on time in his next job, because now he knows that employers won’t put up with that, no matter what his excuses are.

In the second scenario Bud is probably angry, humiliated and contemplating a lawsuit against his employer for physical or mental abuse. He is not reflecting on strategies for arriving on time.

It’s true that Bud was fired as a consequence of his lateness. But the boss’s motivation was not to cause suffering in order to make Bud learn a lesson. He fired Bud to protect his business. Motivations matter. Bud will feel very differently about being fired if it is done respectfully, without intent to cause extra harm in order to “teach a lesson.”

A similar dynamic occurs in our home when we take action to protect ourselves instead of punishing the child. (“I’m very upset! I don’t want the couch drawn on! I’m putting the markers away for now. ” instead of, ‘Bad boy, now you get no dessert because you drew on my couch.”)

But what about the speeding ticket?  Don’t we punish people with fines in order to get them to drive more slowly? Well, studies suggest that while those fines help fund local government, they don’t actually encourage a change of behavior. This study shows that drivers who receive speeding tickets are not deterred from repeating the offense; in fact they are more than twice as likely as other drivers to receive another speeding ticket in the following months.

Drivers will certainly slow down in the presence of a police officer so they won’t get caught. But as soon as that officer is out of the picture, they revert to their previous behavior.

As parents we are not looking to achieve the effect of having our kids behave well only when they are in danger of being caught. We’re trying to raise a person who is internally motivated to drive in a way that doesn’t endanger others, who has a sense of empathy and compassion for other human beings. That will not be achieved by means of punishment.

What’s more, we don’t want our kids to fear and avoid us the way most drivers fear and avoid traffic cops. That’s not the relationship we’re looking for!

If I had a teenager who repeatedly drove dangerously, I would take action by confiscating the car keys. I wouldn’t do it to punish him, but rather to protect him, and to protect other drivers sharing the same road. I might say something like this:

“I can see how tempting it is to drive fast and enjoy the power of speed! I can’t let you use the car until we figure out a way for you to drive safely. I would never forgive myself if someone got hurt.”

That is very different from a punishment, which doesn’t address the problem of how to change behavior.



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