Negative consequences are an important part of a parent’s toolkit. Although some people believe that it is possible to raise children without using negative consequences, most parenting experts recommend the moderate and responsible use of consequences as an effective teaching tool in the context of a warm and loving parent-child relationship. Similarly, while there are some children who may never need a negative consequence to curb their behavior, most kids will benefit from the occasional negative consequence during their twenty developmental years. In fact, the careful application of negative consequences can help parents avoid the use of more toxic interventions like the expression of anger or helplessness. Consequences are used to educate the child, not punish him or her. In order to be effective, they must be delivered without malice, anger, upset or any other punitive, hurtful or shaming attitude. Indeed, the more similar a negative consequence is to a parking ticket, the better. Just like a parking ticket is delivered without emotion (no anger, rejection, humiliation, etc.), so too a consequence is delivered in a matter-of-fact manner. Consequences replace anger as a parenting tool. Yet, it is important to select consequences that are effective. A consequence that does not improve the child’s misbehavior is worse than useless – it can be harmful. Ineffective consequences frustrate parents and fail to educate children. In a cost-benefit analysis they lose out because they cause annoyance and upset without leading to any positive change in behavior. What kind of negative consequences can parents use that will actually be helpful?
Consider the following tips:
First, it helps to remember that parents need not always come up with consequences. In many cases, parents can simply let nature take its course, and let the school of life do the teaching. The idea of surrendering the reins may be counterintuitive for many, especially if you grew up raised under traditional parenting values. But experience can be the best teacher and restraint can be the best parental intervention.
When do you use natural consequence to discipline? Put simply, when your child seems to have realized that he has “bitten off more than he can chew” or that he is “reaping what he sowed.” These are the occasions when the natural effect of our kids’ disobedience or misbehavior is already jarring, or at least thought-provoking, for a child. In these situations, a parent’s reprimand would be superfluous. Sometimes nothing at all needs to be said. Other times, parents may want to simply sit down with their child, and gently ask: “Do you understand why things ended this way?”
Here’s an example: suppose you have repeatedly told your 7 year old son not to leave his fragile toy out where the toddler might get his hands on it, but your son ignored your advice and… the toy got broken by small, curious hands. Do you still need to give a negative consequence? Not at all! It’s unlikely your child will repeat his mistake again. You can just express sympathy and skip the tempting parental lecture. Ideally, you would take some time before replacing the broken toy, so that the lesson will stick.
The same goes when your adolescent gets in trouble in the community or at school. You can show emotional support while allowing the consequences to unfold on their own. If you don’t need to add anything in order to get the point across, then don’t! Your educational power derives largely from the strength of your parent-child bond, so whenever you can be “the good guy” definitely take the opportunity!
The use of natural consequences during discipline has its limitations, however. For one thing, not all misbehavior produces negative consequences. For instance, a naturally smart child can still pass with flying colors at school even if he fails to study or repeatedly comes late to class. More importantly, some natural consequences threaten a child’s physical and emotional safety and must be avoided. For example, the natural consequence of not wearing a safety helmet during biking is an accident — something no parent would allow just for the sake of teaching a lesson!
In these situations, a bit more creativity is required from parents. Parents can try to develop “logical consequences”: consequences that may not be natural, but are still related to the lesson of cause and effect that you want to teach. As with natural consequences, the goal of logical consequences is not to punish, but to instruct.
To come up with the best logical consequence for your child’s misbehavior, pick a punishment that is related to the “crime.” For instance, a child who doesn’t put away his Lego after playing, loses the privilege to play with Lego the next day. Or, a child who doesn’t get into his pajamas in a timely manner, doesn’t “have time” now for his regular bedtime story. Perhaps a child who takes your car for the evening and leaves the gas on “empty” when he returns it, doesn’t get to borrow it for awhile.
While logical consequences are great, they are only effective if they happen to be “the right priced ticket.” For instance, suppose the youngster who leaves a Lego mess doesn’t particularly care whether or not he gets to play with Lego tomorrow. Suppose he has a hundred other equally interesting toys and will not feel put out by not being able to use the Lego. In that case, removing the Lego is not going to be an effective consequence. When you select a consequence, think of making it equal to “a hundred dollar speeding ticket.” What consequence would annoy your child comparably to how annoyed YOU might feel if you got a hundred dollar speeding ticket? The Lego offender might be sufficiently bothered by losing dessert. Of course, losing dessert has nothing at all to do with not putting away one’s toys, just like losing a hundred dollars has nothing at all to do with driving too fast. However, if losing dessert is highly annoying to the child, then maybe it will help him remember to put away his toys in the future. Illogical consequences are consequences that provide sufficient annoyance that they successfully teach the desired lesson, even though they have nothing to do with the original misbehavior. Parents can choose from a list of possibilities such as:
- Removal of the child’s favorite possessions (for up to 24 hours only, and as little as 5 min)
- Removal of privileges (for up to 24 hours only, and as little as 5 min)
- Time-out (for the number of minutes of the child’s age, plus or minus 2)
- Removal of snack/junk food treats (only 1 per consequence)
- Extra work
- Writing lines/essays
- Practicing the desired behavior over and over (for a couple of minutes only)
Many examples of negative consequences in each category can be found in the book Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe.