Do these situations sound familiar? Your 10-year-old won’t listen to you when you tell her to come inside for dinner. You rack your brain for a way to change this behavior so that in the future she will do as you ask. Your teenager breaks curfew – again. You thought you had addressed this with him the last time he got home late, but here you go again. As parents, we know the importance of parenting from our principles, things like teaching our children to own up to their actions and face the fallout when they make poor choices. And you’ve tried. You’ve talked to your child over and over, you’ve explained your reasoning repeatedly. You’ve given them restrictions, taken things away and grounded them for a month. Yet nothing seems to be getting through. It could be time to look at the difference between punishing your child and using consequences.
“Consequences help all of us learn and grow. When kids experience the effects of their actions, they get the chance to learn from their mistakes, make better choices and improve their behaviors.”
What Are Consequences?
Consequences are things that flow naturally from one’s choices, actions and decisions. There can be “bad” and “good” natural consequences. If you overeat, the consequence can be a stomach ache. But if you are kind to someone, they’ll likely be kind in return. Consequences help all of us learn and grow. When kids experience the effects of their actions, they get the chance to learn from their mistakes, make better choices and improve their behaviors. Consequences also give us the chance to parent from our principles instead of from a place of frustration, anger or disappointment.
Consequences Are Different from Punishments
Punishment says to your child: you’d better think like me, or else. If you don’t, I will make you pay (or suffer) until you make the choice I want you to make. A punishment doesn’t respect the child’s right to make a decision, even if that decision is a poor one. It arises out of anger and fear and often looks like a withdrawal of love in order to get the child to do what you want them to do. This approach doesn’t help kids develop new ways of taking responsibility for their behavior. It can also be destructive to the relationship.
Consequences, on the other hand, communicate to your child that their behavior is their choice and their responsibility. And that your responsibility is to help them learn how to face the results of their choices, no matter how difficult or unpleasant. A consequence respects the child’s right to make a decision, even if it’s not a good one. It’s not a withdrawal of love or a rejection. It’s a matter-of-fact learning experience in which you maintain a better relationship with the child as you hold them accountable.
Let’s look at a common situation to illustrate how providing consequences is different from delivering punishment. Your 13-year-old doesn’t call to check-in and let you know where he is. In the past, his punishment was to lose his cell phone for a couple of days. Yes, that might have taught him that when you don’t act responsibly you can lose privileges. But what it didn’t teach him is how to act more responsibly. So how can using consequences make a difference here?
Take the same scenario, but before you decide how to respond first ask yourself: What is it that I want him to learn and improve? You probably want him to learn to follow your instructions and do what he is told, which in this case was to call. You also want him to improve by consistently remembering to do it. To motivate and guide your son to better behaviors, the consequence could be that he will only be allowed to go out with friends on the coming weekend and only for an hour. During that time he must remember to call you and let you know where he is. If he does this successfully both Saturday and Sunday, he can return to going out for longer periods of time. What he’s learning is that privilege (going out with friends) comes with responsibility (calling to check-in). What he’s getting is the chance to practice and demonstrate to you both is that he can be trusted to do as he’s supposed to.
Or maybe your daughter doesn’t do her assigned chores. What do you want her to learn and practice? A natural consequence may be that you do not feel the goodwill to take her shopping. Instead, she is assigned extra jobs to help you out around the house. From this she learns that when she doesn’t do her part, others may not have the time or interest to go out of their way for her. Having to help more around the house will let her practice doing her part and to appreciate that not meeting her responsibilities can cause problems for others.
It’s Not Working!
Of course, consequences are only effective if your child buys in and decides to change. It can be frustrating to hear that, but ultimately their behavior is up to them. Maybe your son will eventually get tired of not having his cell phone and decide he’d rather check-in on schedule. Maybe. That’s up to him. Your job is to consistently hold him accountable through consequences, whether or not he decides to change.
It’s easy when you are feeling exasperated with your child to resort to doing things like using increasingly extreme consequences, attempting to control him or her through anger or distance, or just giving up. Resist that temptation! It can help to keep in mind the underlying reason why you are trying so hard–you genuinely want to help guide your child. By showing your child what they can expect in life when they make poor choices, the consequences are working, regardless of how your child responds. Whether or not your child’s behavior changes is their choice. Your responsibility is to keep reality front and center, whether your child cares to see it or not.
Tips for Creating Effective Consequences
- Pause and be thoughtful – In order to provide consequences that help your child learn, take your time thinking it through. Tell your child you will get back to him or her as to what the consequence will be. Think about what it is that you hope he or she will learn. What is your goal?
- Be consistent – You can’t make your child change, but you can make sure you consistently provide consequences when you see him or her making poor choices. Stick to it, despite any opposition, unhappiness or lack of noticeable change in behavior.
- Be mindful – Stay focused on you doing your job and let your child do his or hers. Your job is to guide your child by providing reasonable and realistic consequences. Your child’s job is to decide how he or she will respond to what you provide and expect.
- Be matter of fact – Think of providing consequences like conducting a business deal. It’s about facts, not emotions. Don’t take their behavior personally, which is hard, I know. Yelling, cajoling, criticizing and nagging won’t work over the long run and will only get you more frustrated and upset. Focus on how you are going to behave, no matter how they act.
- Accept your limits – When we accept that we can’t make our children behave a certain way, we actually have a greater chance of successfully influencing their behavior. When our children don’t have to use their energy to get us off their back, they will have a clearer mind, less anxiety and be better able to make reasonable decisions. Remember that the consequences that you consistently hand them will help positively shape them.
- Use “I” not “You” Statements – Taking an “I” position is better than taking a “You” position when it comes to providing consequences. Children respond better when they know where their parents stand on an issue rather than when they are being bossed. For example, saying “I will not listen when you speak to me like that” delivers a clearer message about what is acceptable than “You had better stop speaking to me like that.”
Punishments send a message to children that sounds like this: “If you think for yourself and not like me, you will have a price to pay.” This, of course, contradicts what most parents actually want for their children, which is to raise them to be independent and think for themselves. Consistent and reasonable consequences can help you to develop children who can function independently, think for themselves, and make good choices throughout their lives.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.