An Alternative to “Consequences”

little girl looking with a forlorn look at the camera, head resting on a wall

I am a huge fan of Dr. Larry Cohen, whom I came to know about via his book “Playful Parenting“:

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According to his website, Dr. Larry Cohen:

“…is a licensed psychologist specializing in children’s play and play therapy. In addition to his private therapy practice, he is also a speaker and consultant to public and independent schools, and a teacher of parenting classes and classes for daycare teachers.”

Way back in 2004, I used to own a little site called Mommy Chats (back when chat sites were all the rage…it’s since been sold and disappeared), and Dr. Larry was one of the experts who was kind enough to partner with my stay-at-home-mom-owned and operated small online business and agreed to join me monthly to chat with myself and groups of moms eager to learn all about what he called “playful parenting”. We learned a lot from him!

Since then, I continue to receive his regular “Playful Parenting Newsletter” in my email inbox, and recently this wonderful little article was shared by Dr. Larry. I was especially struck by the very last paragraph, which I think is extremely powerful and thought-provoking.

So I asked for his permission to share the article on my website, as this is EXACTLY how I have felt for years and haven’t been able to put it into as succinct of words. Not to mention the fact that I don’t have the expertise backing me up that he has.

And he so very kindly said yes!!!

ALSO: if you would like to receive Dr. Larry’s Playful Parenting newsletter(which I HIGHLY recommend! It is always full of really great playful parenting stories and other wonderful info such as what I am going to share below!) …simply drop an email to: with the subject line stating something along the lines of “​Please subscribe me to the Playful Parenting Newsletter“.

And without any further ado…here it is, Dr. Larry Cohen’s short article titled “An Alternative to ‘Consequences’.”

  When children do something that is troublesome, one of the most common responses is a negative consequence. Of course, this is just a nice way to say punishment. Consequences are based on the idea that what’s missing in children who do the wrong thing is a sense of cause and effect. They are seen as needing a stronger negative consequence to their actions. This philosophy is based on studies of rats and pigeons that learn from rewards and punishments. But children are not rats or pigeons! Their brains are much bigger and more complex. Children need understanding, not consequences. Children do things we don’t like because of unmet needs and overloaded feelings. Therefore the more logical response is to meet those needs, and accept and soothe those feelings. 

   A father came to see me at the insistence of his son’s preschool teacher, who had learned that the father repeatedly hit his three-year-old son in the head with a book. The father explained that he hit the boy with a math textbook every time he got an answer wrong during their daily morning math lessons. Obviously no one needs to be hit in the head with a book, so I asked him to consider what his son might really need. The father said, “He needs to know that he has to think harder and work harder to get the answers right. In the real world, wrong answers have consequences.”

   I was tempted to shout at him, “Wrong answer!” and hit him in the head with a psychology textbook. But I restrained myself. I stayed calm and asked him to think about needs from a deeper perspective. He said, “I guess he needs to know that he’s not a bad boy if he gets an answer wrong.” That was a good start. We discussed children’s basic needs, such as connection, autonomy, and play. We also discussed the father’s own childhood, which was filled with brutal beatings and condemnations. I hoped he could have more empathy and compassion for his son, and for himself when he was a young boy. I suggested that if he wanted his son to care about math, he could reach this goal better if he first built a strong close warm relationship, then shared his own love of math.

   I expected that this father would ignore all of my suggestions. However, a few weeks later I happened to see him with his son at a park. He called me over and introduced me to the boy as “the man who taught me to play with you instead of hitting you.” The boy gave me a big smile, and I watched them play together happily. 

    Perhaps you’re thinking, “I would never give a consequence to a small child for getting a math problem wrong, but don’t children need consequences for hurting people, or other serious behaviors?” No. They need to know how you feel about it, and they need to know why it is wrong. But additional consequences interfere with the inner work of moral development. I sat in time out or lost my screen time, so that’s the end of it. I paid my debt to society. The consequence from outside has done all the work, so there is no impetus for conscience development. But when children receive understanding of their feelings and needs, they do the internal work of growing their conscience. They find inside the inner desire to make things right and do the right thing.

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