Struggling to come up with “the right” consequences? Try this!

Marcilieconsequences, discipline, Parenting w/Positive Discipline, punishment4 Comments

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Over the past several months, I have heard some questionable tips from parenting experts on the topic of “consequences.”  What’s surprising to me is that these are parenting experts I respect and agree with most of the time.  But not this time.

Here’s an example of one tip that raised my eyebrows:  “The consequence should be meaningful (something important to the child, such as favorite toys, clothes, or activities).”

In other words, it’s got to hurt in order to work?  Hmmmmmm. . .

I agree that kids need to learn that actions have consequences. The problem with parent-imposed consequences, however, is that more often than not, they are just thinly disguised punishments, intended to make kids pay for their mistakes with blame, shame, and pain rather than learn from their mistakes constructively.

Slide1If we really believe that mistakes are opportunities to learn, then it makes sense to think more critically about what kids are learning from “consequences.”

A few distinctions are in order here. Logical consequences can be defined as consequences that follow logically from the action. For example, if a child spills her milk, the logical consequence would be that she cleans it up (or helps to clean it up if she’s too young to do it on her own.) All very logical so far.

Natural consequences occur without any parental or adult intervention. For example, if your child refuses to wear a raincoat, she might get wet. Natural consequences can be extremely effective in helping kids learn from their mistakes, so long as kids’ genuine safety is not threatened, and parents refrain from throwing in an “I told you so.” Makes sense to me, naturally!

These days, many parents accept that punishment is not an effective teaching tool. They know that making kids pay for their mistakes with blame, shame, isolation or threats backfires in the long run, and often the short run, too. (See Why Punishment Doesn’t Teach Accountability)

Punishment backfires because it predictably results in one of these 4 R’s (from Positive Discipline):

1)  Resentment:  “Mom is so unfair!  I can’t trust her.”

2)  Revenge:  “She’s winning now, but I’ll get even.”

3)  Rebellion:  “I’ll show her that she can’t control me by doing just the opposite.”

4) Retreat:  (in the form of reduced self-esteem) “She’s right . . . I am a bad person.” Or (in the form of sneakiness)  “I just won’t get caught next time.”

Why am I talking about punishment here? It’s because many parenting experts tout consequences without pointing out how easily they can become punishments.

Here’s an example I use in my parenting classes to demonstrate how it goes*:

Serena, a seven-year-old child dawdles in the mornings. Even though she’s been told umpteen times to get moving, she is still late, day after day, and it’s affecting the whole family and making everyone late! There must be consequences, right?!

When I ask parents to help me brainstorm consequences for Serena, they typically offer suggestions like these:

  • take away her favorite toy
  • yell at her
  • no playdates after school for a month
  • make her write an apology note to every member of the family
  • no breakfast

Imagine you are Serena.  What are you thinking and feeling as you hear this list? How motivated are you to change your ways? How effective will these consequences be in helping you to build skills and be successful for the future?

Now let’s shift gears. Forget about consequences. This time let’s brainstorm solutions that might help Serena develop the skills she needs to get ready on time and more independently. What could we do that would help her be successful long term?

Here’s a typical list of brainstormed solutions:

  • help her lay out her clothes the night before
  • involve Serena in creating a morning routine chart
  • ask Serena what she thinks would be helpful for her
  • teach Serena how to use an alarm clock
  • get up 10 minutes earlier

As Serena, what are you thinking and feeling after hearing this list? How motivated are you to cooperate? How effective will these solutions be in helping you build skills and be successful for the future?

Both lists could be interpreted as “consequences” (the result of an action) but they are profoundly different.

The first is really a list of thinly disguised punishments — I call them “conse-punishments” —  meant to make Serena pay for her mistakes. They’re mostly hurtful. The second list feels so different:  empowering, skill building, and . . . helpful in learning from her mistakes for the long term.

So how do parents come up with consequences that are helpful and not hurtful? Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline suggests you simply forget “consequences” and just “Focus on Solutions!” According to her, good solutions meet all 4 of the following criteria:

1) Reasonable

2) Related to the action/problem 

3) Respectful 

4) Helpful 

Let’s use “no playdates after school for a month” as an example consequence and run it through the criteria here.

Is it reasonable? Chances are, the parent threw this out in a fit of anger, and doesn’t really intend to follow through for a whole month. For me, a month seems extreme so it fails on this criterion.

Is it related to the situation?  What do playdates after school have to do with getting ready in the mornings? I don’t see the connection. Fail.

Is it respectful?  This criterion is not just about what the consequence is, but also how it’s delivered. I envision this consequence given in anger and without advance warning, therefore it fails here, too.

Is it helpful?  Great parenting is about much more than keeping our kids “in line.” It’s about helping them develop life skills and beliefs that will enable long term self-discipline. How would losing playdates help Serena become more successful in getting herself ready in the mornings? It wouldn’t.

So for me, this consequence fails on all 4 criteria and thus is actually a “conse-punishment.”

Click here to see how I used these criteria to evaluate “no breakfast.”

I admit, coming up with SOLUTIONS can be tricky at first. Here are some hints for using solutions effectively:

1) Make sure you’re level-headed before coming up with a solution. Give yourself a few seconds, minutes, hours or days to calm down and access your higher thinking brain before trying to help your child learn from their mistake. There are some situations where you must respond immediately. Most, however, are not emergencies.

2) Involve your child in coming up with a solution.  When we take the time to involve our kids in solving problems, they learn so many things:  that we think they are capable of solving problems, what respect feels like, and how to solve problems. What’s more, they are more likely to follow through with a solution that they’ve helped to find.

3) Plan ahead.  Our own disorganization has consequences too and kids can end up paying for our mistakes!  A little advanced planning can prevent many problems from ever happening.  Get up earlier, make a routine chart, discuss the problem with your child during a calm time, pack lunch the night before, etc. Planning ahead is almost always an effective solution!

4) Ask yourself what your child is thinking, feeling, and learning from the solution.  Are they learning that when they mess up, there’s hell to be paid? Or are they learning that you have faith in them to fix their mistakes, and will love them even when they are messing up big time?

The difference between a logical consequence and “consepunishment” can be hard to distinguish at first.  But if we give ourselves the chance to practice and consider the 3R’s and and H, we’re much more likely to encourage learning (the helpful kind!) for the long term.

Want more?  Here’s what Dr. Laura Markham has to say about consequences.  I happen to agree with her ( :

Good Luck!  If you’d like support in this awesome parenting job, check out a Parenting with Positive Discipline class.  More here.

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*This example, "Solutions vs. Consequences" is from Teaching Parenting the Positive Discipline Way by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott

4 Comments on “Struggling to come up with “the right” consequences? Try this!”

  1. I really love your approach and agree completely with your philosophy but have trouble implementing this parenting style consistently. For example if I try to give my 4 yr old son more time to get ready to him that means more time to play. He is totally uninterested in choosing his clothes and there is always a struggle getting him into any I choose. I often end up making petty threats, such as “I’ll take your special toy” or “I’m leaving without you” which feels really wrong to me for all the reasons you mentioned in this article but I really don’t know how else to make him co-operate. My son is very strong willed and often doesn’t want to go along with what I want him to do. I’m not sure if I don’t present things well to him though I do try to always be organized and give him advance notice of what will be happening and I do like to keep him involved in the planning of things. Then there is the issue of him behaving in a way that is unsafe for himself and for his little sister. He is very physical and plays very rough with his sister. He often just absolutely won’t listen when I ask him to be gentle or to not touch her. How do I get his attention and make him want to co-operate with out using threats in this situation? When there is a risk of physical harm.

  2. It’s really hard for me to implement consistently, too. Like many people, what comes naturally to me is either too firm or too permissive, because that’s the way I was raised. The good news is that with practice, it gets easier and begins to feel more natural to parent in a way that is both kind and firm at the same time. Definitely takes my focused attention, and lots of support.

    It sounds like you’re doing many things right: giving your son advance notice, being organized yourself so you can set him up for success, and involving your son in the planning of things. Hooray! These efforts may not always work, but for sure they are increasing the odds. Keep it up!

    Here are a few new things to try if you haven’t already:
    1. Remember that if your goal is to MAKE your son cooperate, you may continue to be frustrated. Your better bet is to create the conditions for him to WANT to cooperate. That means doing what you can to help him feel loved/connected and significant.
    2. Strong-willed kids are often trying to tell the world “I’m powerful” because they feel powerless. These kids do much better when they are given power and shown how to use it in a constructive way. For example, give your child choices: “Should we get dressed or brush teeth first? You pick.” Or give them a job: “Sweet boy, I need some help in getting us out of the house on time. Will you please be in charge of ringing this bell 10 minutes before it’s time to go?” Or ask for their help: “I could use a hand scrambling these eggs. Can you stir while I pour the juice?”
    3. When kids don’t listen, it’s often because we’ve trained them not to until we yell. If you want your child to listen, model to them what respectful listening looks like by really giving them your full attention when they are talking to you. Then when you make a request of them, make sure you are in the same room, at their level, and get eye contact. This is called, “Eye to Eye” in Positive Discipline. Make a respectful request in 10 words or less. Then stay there, validate their their feelings of not wanting to comply, and wait. “I know you’d rather play right now, I get it! Trains are way more fun than getting dressed. And, it’s time to get dressed. Shall we put your shirt on or your pants on first? You pick.”

    There’s so much more to say but I’ll leave it here for now. Good luck! Check out my blog on Making Mornings More Manageable if you want more!

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