February Parenting Thought of the Month: The Consequence Trap

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Today, many parents have a meh relationship with consequences—they know punishments should be doled out when a child misbehaves, but they don’t like having to carry out the sentence. The trouble lies in the fact that most parents view consequences as only punitive—that is, to punish a child for doing wrong.

That way of thinking makes it hard for moms and dads to be consistent with punishments and to actually levy strong enough consequences to make a difference in their child’s behavior. What they often forget or fail to recognize is that consequences have a purpose beyond a “sentence” for wrongdoing.

Consequences have two main objectives:

  1. To make a child feel bad about the misbehavior AND
  2. To make a child think twice about misbehaving in the future.

Most of the time, children don’t feel bad about doing the wrong thing on their own. It’s something we must teach our children. Not to shame them, but to help them recognize that there are right things to do and there are wrong things to do. Kids who don’t learn the difference usually have a more difficult time navigating life’s rough waters.

Images Copyright: Kat and Steve Smith | ks-photography.com.au

 

To achieve the first objective, parents must be willing to allow their child to feel temporary (emotional mostly) pain or discomfort when correcting the misbehavior. A child who cries when caught with a hand in the cookie jar is feeling emotional pain, but mostly because he or she was caught. Levying a consequence will reinforce that wasn’t the right thing to do—and help the child remember not to reach into the cookie jar again without permission. Consequences should also deter a child from misbehavior in the future.

Sometimes, though, moms and dads don’t carry out a sentence that will impact a child’s future. In other words, we sometimes will levy minor punishments in the hopes that will curb future “crimes.” And when it doesn’t—as will happen at times—we pile on more minor consequences in the vain hope that those “slaps on the wrist” will change a child’s wrong direction.

We also misstep by telling a child exactly what will happen when he or she does something wrong, i.e., “You leave your bike out one more time, and I’m putting it away for a week.” On occasion, this will work as a determent or an incentive to correct behavior, but more often, a child simply decides he or she can “handle” the punishment, so does the crime.

What is more effective is a parent who simply does something when a child misbehaves, but the child has no idea what that will be. We follow this practice in our home, in that, we rarely tell our kids what will happen if they misbehave. What they do know is that we are very creative in our punishments, and that we “hit them where it hurts,” i.e., we tailor consequences to have the most impact on that particular child. Not a one-size-fits-all approach.

When a child doesn’t know what will happen—but does know it will be something that impacts his/her way of life negatively—the child will be more apt to think before doing the misdeed. That’s why you don’t always tell exactly what will happen, and you make sure your punishments are designed to maximize discomfort for the child. This is to help the child’s conscious to develop and to provide an external check to misbehavior.

Here’s one example from my household. When my oldest daughter, Naomi, was 10 years old, one of her daily chores was to refill the cats’ water dish before school each morning, which was in the downstairs bathroom. She started to get sloppy about it, and I would go downstairs after they were on the bus to find the water dish empty or nearly so. Nagging her didn’t help, and neither did a week of early-to-bed nights.

Then I realized she didn’t care enough to “remember” her chore—it was up to me to make her an offer she couldn’t refuse. The next day, I put up a 30 block chart on the fridge with Naomi’s name at the top. When she noticed it after school, I told her what it meant: She was to fill the cats’ water dish every day for 30 days, telling her dad or me so we could check it. If she missed a day, the 30 days started all over from day 1. Once she had gone 30 consecutive days without reminders or misses, she would get her books back.

Silence from Naomi. Then, “What do you mean I’ll get my books back?” I had noticed that she was reading in the mornings before school Now I love it that all of my kids love to read, but in Naomi’s case, it was interfering with her morning chores. So I took them away. For a month. No reading at all at home. She threw a fit (of course), but do you think she missed filling the cats’ water dish once in the next 30 days? Nope. Suddenly, her “memory” problem was fixed! Have I had to bring out the big guns like that again with her? Nope, that’s a memory that sticks! Have I had to remind her younger sister (2 years younger) to do her chores? Nope, she’s prompt because she doesn’t want something similar to happen to her.

Consequences should be memorable, cause a child discomfort, temporary (they don’t last forever in most cases), and provide a lasting lesson to deter future infractions.

Crime and Punishment

I’m often asked by parents whether the punishment should fit the crime. In other words, should a child’s punishment for a misbehavior have some sort of correlation, some connection, with that misbehavior?

The simple answer is No. The punishment does not have to fit the crime. In fact, it probably should have nothing to do with the crime.

But shouldn’t the child be able to relate the consequences with his actions? Isn’t that part of what we should teach our children?

Yes and no. Yes, a child should connect the fact that his disobedience triggered his punishment. But no, in the sense that the child should see a direct relationship between the punishment and his misbehavior.

Put another way, some parents believe that if a child pulls up all the flowers in your garden, then his punishment should be something related to replacing those flowers in the garden or cleaning up the mess, etc. Sometimes, the misbehavior does lend itself to a natural consequence punishment, as in our flower pulling example.

But other times, the misbehavior doesn’t have a clear tie to natural consequences—and thus the parent must come up with a punishment. At times, our immediate response to a misbehavior—especially if the misbehavior is quite breathtaking in scope—we overcompensate and throw everything and the kitchen sink at them, especially if their outward demeanor exhibits no discernable remorse. For example, we want to ground them until they turn 18…in 13 years. We want to take all of their toys to the local thrift store right now.

However, usually that kind of over-reaction happens in the heat of the moment, immediately following the discovery of the misbehavior, when we’re upset or angry or disappointed or frustrated with our offspring. That knee-jerk reaction, while understandable, isn’t the best way to levy consequences because usually, those are the types of punishments that can’t possibly be carried out. The child can’t be grounded for more than a decade. Throwing every single toy away isn’t practical in any sense of the word.

So how do you figure out what to do? Here are some general guidelines to help you when your child needs correction.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

First, you don’t have to do something right away. With the exception of children under the age of 3, you can wait to levy consequences. For a preschooler age 3 and older, you can wait several hours before disciplining. For young elementary school age, you can wait a few days. For kids age 8 or so and older, you can wait several weeks. So when your own emotions are swirling like whirling dervish, take a moment to count to 10 or walk away to gather your thoughts before blurting out impossible-to-deliver consequences.

Second, don’t fiddle with penny-ante discipline. You know what I mean, the kind of punishment that’s designed to deter but not halt the misbehavior. Things that briefly get a child’s attention but don’t cause her to readjust her actions only prolong the problem. So don’t fool around with little consequences—such as taking away a kid’s bike or TV privileges for a single day.

Third, the consequences should never fit the crime. This basically means that you don’t worry about whether or not the punishment is “appropriate” for the misbehavior. Parents often fall into the trap of being concerned with fairness when it comes to discipline. The reality is, life isn’t fair and consequences shouldn’t be either.

Fourth, sometimes, you’ve got to make it memorable. This is reserved for really entrenched behaviors or for a time when you think the child in question needs a good wake-up call. So you lower the boom and pull the rug out from underneath him in order to recalibrate his course of action and to avoid repeats of the same behavior in the future.

One time, our oldest daughter kept “forgetting” to give the cats fresh water each day. Finally, after fooling around with penny-ante discipline, I wised up and pulled out the big guns. I took away something she absolutely loved—reading—until she could go for 30 days without “forgetting” to refill the water. Needless to say, it took only 30 days and we haven’t had a major problem with her “forgetting” her chores again (and her younger sister hasn’t “forgotten” either, it made that big an impression on them both!).

Fifth, you remember that you as the parent can do all the right things—and your child can still choose to do the wrong thing. One of my children used to “take the hit” in order to misbehave. I liken it to my in-laws late dog, Rocky, who was a huge Chesapeake Bay retriever. He wore an electric fence collar and knew the boundaries of the fence. Going through the fence enacted a rather painful jolt of electricity to his neck. But sometimes, he would become so determined to case a delivery van cruising down the street that he would pace and pace, then break through the barrier, yelping all the way, to run off after the truck. Rocky simply decided the joy of the chase was worth the pain of the electric jolt.

Our kids sometimes are much the same, choosing to take the punishment (whatever that might be) for the “joy” of misbehaving. That doesn’t mean we stop punishing them for misbehaviors; it does mean that we recognize they have the potential to keep misbehaving.

Remember, the key to discipline is consistency. Do something, but keeping what that something is doesn’t have to be the same each time.

Until next time,
Sarah