What do you do when your two children fight and hit one another? Or when your 9-year-old goes to a friend’s house after school without telling you his plans? Or if your 4-year-old draws on the walls in his room? Or your 12-year-old keeps missing the bus for school in the morning? When children misbehave or ignore rules, parents often think that the only option they have in response is to impose a consequence. Actually, there are many alternatives you can try before you take away privileges, which is the most commonly used type of consequence. You can:
- Give a reminder
- Encourage appropriate behavior
- Use rewards and offer incentives
- Give choices
- Use a time-in to talk about the rule and what they can do next time
- Teach why the rule is important
- Use “I” messages: “When I don’t know where you are after school, I worry because I’m afraid something is wrong.”
- Re-negotiate the rule with your child: “What time do you need to wake up in the morning in order to get ready for school on time?”
- Use a problem solving (exploring) process: “How can we work together to solve this problem?”
- State firmly that the rule is non-negotiable: “The rule is we draw on paper, not on the walls.”
Even after trying these options, children will not always comply. With all good intentions on your part and hope for success as you try some of these approaches, your children still may not respond as you want. You may set rules, only to have them ignored. At that point, consequences may be the next skill you can use to teach your children what you want them to do and how you want them to behave.
But knowing what the consequence ought to be is sometimes difficult. How can you decide what consequence is appropriate and will stop the misbehavior?
TWO TYPES OF CONSEQUENCES
Understanding that there are two basic types of consequences, natural and imposed, may make things a little clearer.
The first type is called a Natural Consequence. This happens naturally without any intervention on your part. For example, if a 5-year-old refuses to wear mittens on a cold day and you do not intervene, her hands will get cold and she may decide next time that mittens would be a good idea. You can use these natural consequences when the result will not be dangerous to your children. Although it may be difficult at times to step aside and watch your children struggle, whenever possible, it is best to use natural consequences. Not only is experience the best teacher, but natural consequences can take you out of the loop and thus avoid conflicts with your kids. When to allow natural consequences to occur is a personal decision. You have to take into account the specifics of the situation and the impact of allowing the natural consequence to play out. In addition, you need to consider your values, beliefs, and priorities, as well as the temperament and maturity of your children. The decision is a judgment call on your part.
The second type is called an Imposed Consequence; it occurs as a result of your intervention. More often than not, you will need to use imposed consequences to teach your children a lesson because the natural consequence would be too dangerous or too late in coming. For example, you are not about to let your four-year-old run into the street and get hit by a car in order to teach that running into the street is a bad idea. So what consequence can you employ? One example of an imposed consequence would be that the child who ran into the street must play only in the fenced-in backyard or in the house for the rest of the day.
Sometimes, though, it is not clear what consequence would connect to your children’s behavior or you have tried related consequences but they have not been effective in getting your children to change their behavior. Unrelated Imposed Consequences are often used after repeated offenses and after other methods have not worked, or when the problem is a very serious one. For example, let’s say your child continues to hit his brother after you have brainstormed with him what else he can do when he gets angry at his sibling. This time you might take away all screen time until he comes up with a viable plan to change his behavior. He may need your help in developing his ideas and how he will implement them, and screen time will be revoked until he comes up with a workable plan. This will communicate how serious you think the situation is. It also gives your child the responsibility for figuring out how to remedy the problem and gives him control over when the consequence will be lifted.
When faced with a situation, first decide if the natural consequence would be too dangerous/ineffective to use. If you determine it is not an appropriate consequence and that the situation does not call for putting a halt on all privileges (unrelated imposed), then you will need to devise a related imposed consequence.
Sometimes coming up with these is not so easy. A consequence given in the heat of the moment might be too harsh and so you may never carry it out. Barbara Coloroso, in her book Kids are Worth It, offers four guidelines for determining logical and appropriate consequences. A helpful way to recall them, she says, is to think of the acronym RSVP.
Relevant and Reasonable – relate it to the misdeed and make it appropriate to the children’s ages and abilities. If a toddler breaks a glass, having her pick up the shards (NOT appropriate for her age) or sending her to her room (not related to the misdeed) would not make sense, but having her hold the bag as you pick up the pieces would.
Simple – be direct and clear and not overly involved or detailed. If your daughter gets ink on the shirt she borrowed from you, she needs to remove the stain. One parent made a nine-year-old who had broken a window playing ball earn money by washing windows in her house to help pay for the new glass. The windows were streaked but she got the message across. After she cooled down, she also explained to him why it was wrong to throw the ball so close to the house.
Sometimes parents have trouble deciding on a consequence immediately. In that case, you can tell your child how angry you are and that you need time to consider what the consequence will be.
Valuable – as a learning tool. When children do something wrong, the most level-headed first thought would be to consider: “How can I best teach my child what he needs to learn to remedy this behavior?” Making a twelve-year-old who had left household tools out in the rain dry them and sand off any rust would teach responsibility; berating him or not allowing television for two weeks would not.
Practical – enforceable and not more “punishing” to you than to your child. Grounding an upper-school child for a month for not doing her chores may not be enforceable and may prove to be quite bothersome to you. Letting her know that she will have to complete her tasks after school before she goes to a friend’s house is a consequence you can enforce.
It is the certainty, not the severity – Coloroso believes that it is the certainty of the consequence that determines the impact, not the severity. In other words, decide on a reasonable logical consequence and then be sure to enforce it.
Too severe a penalty can be counter-productive because instead of focusing on what they did wrong, children may concentrate on their anger at you and not accept responsibility for the transgression. Kids may feel they have “paid” for the crime and served their “sentence” without ever looking at their own behavior and how that needs to change. It is far more effective for children to be held accountable in a gentler way so that they begin to assume some responsibility for their own behavior.
GIVE OPPORTUNITIES TO MAKE AMENDS
Another important element of healthy consequences is to include some way for children to make amends, get back into your good graces, regain self-respect, and re-establish trust. This restitution can be in the form of helping to clean up a mess, paying for a broken or lost item, or writing a letter of apology. In this way, your children will learn that nobody is perfect, everyone slips up at one time or another, and there are ways to make up for mistakes.
The establishment of fair consequences can be difficult for a parent – it really is more of an art than a science. Contrary to what many parents think, there is no one ‘right’ consequence for any behavior or misdeed. There are many options and ways to go about establishing a consequence. Flexibility is the order of the day, as is remembering to maintain your children’s dignity so that they can best learn from whatever consequence you set.By Audrey Krisbergh and Claire Gawinowicz, Certified Parenting Educators
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