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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, September 11, 2014

More about Nasty Tastes and "Consequences" for "Choices"

Some time ago, I posted comments about the suggestion of a “nanny blog” that children should be disciplined by having unpleasant substances placed in their mouths ( I gave a number of reasons why this approach is inappropriate and potentially harmful to children.

A few days ago, a comment on that post was submitted by “Adam”. He said, “Since when is giving someone vinegar in any way hurting them. If you do your research you will see that vinegar has many healthy benefits to them. Giving it as a consequence is a deterrent. While I agree with spanking too, does this not hurt? The idea is not to hurt but to teach that for a bad choice comes a consequence. You may think that taking away a little tv time will do the trick but you have to consider the situation. Any kind of punishment is wrong if not done with love. If any of these are done out of anger they are wrong.”

It’s difficult to tell exactly what Adam’s argument is, of course. The original post had to do primarily with the recommendation of Tabasco sauce and pepper for disciplinary techniques, although vinegar and lemon juice were mentioned--  so it’s really irrelevant whether some people believe that vinegar is good for you (as are some of the other substances mentioned, including soap, when used for appropriate purposes).

The central point of Adam’s argument, I think, has to do with “consequences” and with punishment, and with the similarities and differences between the two. Like many other people, Adam seems to confuse these terms, and to follow a line of thinking in which a parent might say “I consequenced my daughter.”
I think the confusion shown by Adam and others can be traced to belief systems like that characterized by Foster Cline’s commercially-successful “Love & Logic” program. Perhaps finding that parents felt anxiety and guilt when they saw themselves as punitive, L & L introduced “consequence” as a transitive verb. The L & L group also created a false analogy between the impersonal painful effects of the physical environment on those who ignore its rules, and the personal administration of discomfort by adults who believe that painful experiences should alter a child’s unwanted behavior.

Ignoring the realities of the natural world does have its consequences, often uncomfortable and sometimes even fatal. Don’t wear your jacket when the temperature is dropping, and you might be miserably cold. Jump out a second-story window, and you could die or at least be seriously injured. It doesn’t matter who you are or whether some other person decides you’ve been bad or not--  these consequences are always the same, when conditions are the same.

Things parents do to children with the intention of discouraging unwanted behavior are punishments, not consequences. They do not just happen naturally, but occur when the adults make decisions about the behavior and how to respond to it. Unlike consequences, punishments don’t happen in exactly the same way every time. Sometimes parents decide that an unwanted act was accidental and don’t punish it. Sometimes they are too tired to follow through. Sometimes punishment is given so long after the unwanted behavior that it is completely ineffective. And sometimes there is no punishment because the parent does not find out about the act at all (and in that case, the child experiences all the reward value of whatever it was he wanted to do, without any associated punishment).

A strange but true point about the use of punishment is that both rewards and punishments are most effective when they are small. Intense, frightening punishments arouse so much emotion that children may not be able to understand their connection to the unwanted behavior. That would be likely to be the case when young children are “hot-sauced” as a punishment. Mild punishments like a raised parental voice or simply being physically stopped from an action, if they follow immediately or even better coincide with an unwanted act, are much more effective than intense punishment.

A recent webinar about working with FASD children, provided by the Canadian group CHNET-WORKS ( gave some useful hints about helping children comply with adult wishes. These were directed primarily at FASD problems, but also considered relevant to autistic children and others with problems of brain functioning. These children may be seen as noncompliant or oppositional rather than as unable to obey adult rules, although the latter point may be the real case.. Dan Dubovsky of SAMHSA gave some especially useful suggestions that are applicable to many children and adolescents.

One important point is that multiple rules or multiple directions may be confusing to some older children, just as they are to toddlers. When the adult says “take those clothes upstairs and put them away,” and the child does not follow through, the problem may well not be deliberate disobedience, but a state of confusion or even the inability to remember the second instruction after the first has been accomplished. Breaking a task into small, definite pieces may be necessary before poorly-functioning children can complete the entire task.
Dubovsky also suggested that only a reward system be used, rather than  including punishment or “consequences”. Children with cognitive difficulties respond well to small rewards (including praise), but can be upset or confused by punishment--  and this would be especially true of punishments that are delayed, as I mentioned earlier.

Another way of smoothing life with a poorly-functioning child is to give help in handling transitions--  getting up, going to bed, leaving for school, having company come. The child may need repeated warnings of what is going to happen in order to tolerate the change, even though these transitions occur every single day and adults imagine that the child will be comfortable with them.

As a final point, I want to refer back to one of Adam’s statements and point out how this way of thinking can cause poor handling of some children. Adam said that  “for a bad choice comes a consequence.” This “good choice, bad choice” talk is very common nowadays, and I think is harmless with well-functioning children, although it’s really just the modern way to say “good girl” or “bad girl”.

However, the idea of a “bad choice” contains within it the assumption that a child is making a choice, and that the ensuing action is voluntary. In other words, the reasons for all behaviors are thought to be within the child. This assumption is called the “fundamental attribution error”, and it is a matter of ignoring or minimizing the impact of external factors on behavior. To avoid the fundamental attribution error, it is important to realize that the child’s actions may be shaped by external factors, as much or more than they are by his or her decision about what to do. A crowded, over-stimulating room may cause disorganized, “hyperactive”, distractible behavior. An angry adult who appears threatening may cause stonewalling or lying. A set of overly-complicated instructions may be followed by failure to comply. These external factors can be altered by adults in ways that can change child behavior--  but this will not happen until the adults drop the idea that children’s behavior is necessarily a matter of “choice”.

Following some of the suggestions in this post will work much better than putting unpleasant substances in children’s mouths.



  1. Great Stuff, Jean! - I see you're coming around to my way of thinking.


  2. So you don't think:

    "Speak roughly to your little boy
    And beat him when he sneezes--
    He only does it to annoy
    Because he knows it teases"

    1. No we should be honest - when we beat the snot out of our kids, that's therapeutic for us. It has nothing to do with them.


    2. Yes, the positive reinforcement that comes from working your will on somebody must not be discounted... not to speak of the praise that may be heard from some other members of the community.