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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.
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:
2) Related to the action/problem
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