CYC-Online 84 JANUARY 2006
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Ideas: Consequences ... or?

Brian Gannon

The first in a series on ideas, good and not-so-good, which have influenced our practice.

“Consquence” is, in essence, an unpleasant word. I know it’s really quite a neutral word, meaning something which follows something else, but in common usage, most consequences are dire. We don’t generally use the word for ice-cream sundaes or days at the beach – these are treats or fun. When you do something wrong, there are “consequences”.

In the last couple of decades of the twentieth century, we in the child and youth care business delivered the coup de grace to this unsuspecting word. And it all started with what was really a good idea.

There had been a bad habit in group care practice of punishing kids “to teach them a lesson”. These punishments were anything but teaching methods: you are grounded for a week; you will work for five afternoons in the garden; you will forego dessert at dinner for a week (even though dessert in those days might have been a mindless blancmange or, worse, a sago pudding). These punishments arose from situations where there were too many kids for too few staff, and the staff were in any case untrained and were expected to do no more than keep order. Ideas about “aversive therapy” had been around for a while, but let’s leave the word “therapy” out of this. The punishments were really to make life unpleasant for kids who were making our lives unpleasant. That'll teach them!

But people did begin to ask, what does this teach kids? Seriously. Does scrubbing out the toilet floors make young people more prosocial or co-operative? Will they be all starry-eyed and co-operative when they finish? Psychologists like Dreikurs and Dinkmeyer, students of Adler’s psychology, developed helpfully the thinking about punishments and rewards and their influence on behaviour, and suggested that kids might be able to draw their own conclusions about the sequelae (the same word as “consequences") of destructive and negative behaviour – if we made the connections for them.

They distinguished between natural and logical consequences. Natural consequences were easy: if a kid grazed his knee from skateboarding on the gravel road, he would decide for himself to be more careful next time. If he swore in an ungentlemanly fashion in front of his current lady-love and she refused to see him again, he might choose to edit his working vocabulary ... and so on. Sometimes we might need to connect the dots for the kids between their unsatisfactory behaviour and its consequences (if she doesn’t wake up and get up after your few motherly or fatherly calls, let her arrive late for school; if he doesn’t come in when you call him for dinner his food will be unpleasantly cold) but natural consequences are the best kind. Dire as they might be, they are not imposed by anyone but simply follow naturally – and more important, they are not imposed arbitrarily because a care worker feels that his/her authority is being challenged and wants to “get back” at the kid.

Logical consequences were different. There were two parts to this:

  1. The consequence was “logical” rather than arbitrary. If a kid smashed a window the consequence was that he should fix it or pay towards a new one. If he left his room in a mess in the morning, he had to tidy it before he could go out an play after school. So far, so good.
  2. The consequence was “agreed”. We have a deal (or a “contract") with the youth that if he or she does (this), then the consequence will be (that). I don’t want to oversimplify or appear to parody logical consequences, but however they are presented, they often don’t come up smelling of roses.

For one thing, they remain suspiciously like adults coercing kids. I mean, no kid is going to come up to us voluntarily and say “Goodness, my room is in a mess. I think I had better undertake to clean it up before I go out an play this afternoon. Where do I sign?” Deep down, it is the adult (or maybe a mixed group of adults, ranging from care workers to managers) who want the room tidied up ... or else. And it is the folks with the power who can add the “or else” part. This frankly maintains an external locus of control, not a desired aim of human development work, and messes up Kohlberg's ideas about the the growth of moral reasoning.

Interposing this legalistic set of codes and treaties between adult and child seems to me to weaken the valuable flesh-and-blood link between an authoritative adult and a youngster. When the chips are down, the “contract” becomes the agent which imposes the consequence rather than the adult. Too easy. And, of course, the situation can arise whereby one care worker can enter into the agreement, while another care worker on a later shift has to carry out the sentence – sorry, consequence.

Some programs develop a complete Codex Peccatorum whereby every crime is matched with an appropriate “consequence”, so that before the misdeed is even so much as contemplated, the course of justice is already laid out. Well, one could bring in a team of suitably qualified computers to implement such a system!

I have seen some (successful, given these limitations) “logical” routines, legally negotiated and agreed, which revert to highly illogical penalties (like a youngster is not allowed to go home for a weekend) if the obligations are not fulfilled. I say “successful” because they resulted in reduced offending behaviour, sometimes remarkably, but who is to say that this improvement was not brought about simply because the issue was regularly focussed on over a period. Anything for a quiet life – even make my bed! Or, dare we suggest it, successful because the adult and child got to meet and talk more often? Not to mention that it is very unlikely that a reduction in the “offending behaviour” of unmade beds was a legitimate treatment goal ... or the fact that linking an unmade bed with the denial of a weekend with family is a professional foul in the rule book of Life.

"Are you suggesting,” I was once challenged in a meeting, “that children should be allowed to do as they like? And that the staff should preside over a situation of chaos?” The question was attached to a discussion on discipline and obedience, which is a bigger and far scarier topic than this piece about consequences, but it certainly raised the spectre of institutionalisation – the central issue of which is the expectation (and demand) for compliance with the rules and good order of the closed society which is the residential programme, rather than for growing young people’s coping skills for the realities of ordinary life afterwards. Imagine the poverty of our adult night lives if we carried with us the deep anxiety over threatened consequences for the cardinal sins of “whispering after lights-out” “or worse! (I have an adult friend, known – at least by name – to all of you who read CYC-ONLINE, who resists making his bed in the morning – indeed has a whole theory of just how bad morning bed-making is – yet is allowed to spend his weekends with his family.)

After all is said and done, let’s face it: Our profession has subverted the interesting idea of consequences into something far less intelligent. It has turned the word “consequence” into a simile for “punishment”, and indeed invented the new infinitive verb: “to consequence”!

Alfie Kohn wrote:

Many educators are acutely aware that punishment and threats are counterproductive. Making children suffer in order to alter their future behavior can often elicit temporary compliance, but this strategy is unlikely to help children become ethical, compassionate decision makers. Punishment, even if referred to euphemistically as “consequences,” tends to generate anger, defiance, and a desire for revenge. Moreover, it models the use of power rather than reason and ruptures the important relationship between adult and child.

Gable et al. (2000) wrote:

Many assume that “consequences” change destructive behavior, but often such punishment only motivates further resistance. For many reasons, administering negative consequences is not a very efficient or effective way of eliminating negative behavior or teaching positive behavior. Thus the new direction in education and treatment is to determine the function of the behavior and use this information to create positive intervention plans.

Jack Phelan in writing about the developmental stages of child and youth care workers, suggested that “the tasks for the Level 2 worker include: creating opportunities for youth to be independent, relaxing external control, and eliminating punishments/consequences ...” and further that supervisory strategies would include: “encourage creative thinking, how can we let go of rules and consequences.”

The winner in all of this is the natural consequence, otherwise known as real life. Yes, we do need to bring young people through a period of respite and reassurance and re-connecting, but our yardstick is never “law and order today”. It is always offering education and experience and skills building which eventually allow them to take up their own place in the world at large.


Gable, R.A; Quinn, M.M.; Rutherford, R.R; Howell, K.W & Hoffman, C.C. (2000). Creating positive behavioral intervention plans and supports. (2nd Edition). Washington, DC: Center for Effective Collaboration, American Institute for Research.

Kohn, A. (2005) The risk of rewards.

Susan Leaf Leaf, S. (1995). The Journey from Control to Connection. Journal of Child and Youth Care, vol.10 (1). pp15-21

Phelan, J. Stages of Child and Youth Care Worker Development

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