A lot of the work I do is parent training. Parents bring their child (or children) to me because they are struggling to manage his or her difficult behavior. There may be a specific behavior of concern such as lying (see Smudging the Truth and Lying, Type 2 for more on this particular challenging behavior) or, in many instances, the parents simply do not feel like their children are well-behaved in general. Often, these parents feel helpless and hopeless. Some blame themselves; others blame their child or their partner.
Truth be told, I think that most kids do just fine in life, even if their parents don’t have the best behavior management skills. Most kids have pleasant temperaments, want to get along with their parents, want to please teachers and do well in school, and want to be well-liked by peers. For these kids, occasional less-than-firm limits, capricious consequences, and inconsistency between parents will do little harm. They will continue to be generally well-behaved kids.
There are kids, however, who have cranky and unhappy temperaments, who have poor self-control, who push back against authority, and who seem to value getting their way over relationships with parents and peers. I would argue that these kids don’t want to be this way. They are the way they are for a myriad of reasons – temperament, household stress, psychological problems, learning problems, adverse childhood events, and of course, parenting practices. For these children, effective parenting skills are essential. I’ve written about one such client, 10-year-old Saria, in a previous post (Hitting by Any Other Name). Just this week, she offered this explanation for her frequent difficult behavior:
My mood just makes me miserable and I guess it makes my parents miserable too. And then their misery makes me even more miserable. – Saria, age 10
Today’s post is about one very important aspect of good behavior management: using consequences effectively. I first want to make a distinction between consequences and punishment. Even though people often use these terms interchangeably, they are not the same. A consequence is the result of an action. It can be positive, negative, or neutral, and it can happen naturally or be imposed. Here are some examples of consequences that are relevant to parenting:
- Because Slava refused to stop reading so she could get to sleep last night, she is feeling exhausted and cranky during her long day as a camp counselor (feeling tired and cranky is a natural, negative consequence of staying up late).
- Because Ryan chose to play video games instead of finishing his homework, he had to miss a neighborhood barbecue (missing the barbecue is an imposed, negative consequence for incomplete homework).
- Because Kenneth works really hard on his fundamentals during practice and is very respectful of his coach, he gets more playing time than any of the other point guards on his team (playing time is an imposed, positive consequence for working hard and being respectful).
- Because Beatrice always remembers to lock her bike when she is finished riding it, her bike did not get stolen when her brother’s bike did (still having a bike is a positive, natural consequence for remembering to lock it).
As you can tell from the above examples, sometimes a consequence is intended as a punishment which is defined as a consequence that follows an undesirable behavior that decreases the likelihood of the behavior in the future. Ryan’s parents, for example, did not allow him to attend the neighborhood barbecue in hopes that doing so would deter Ryan from leaving his homework incomplete in the future. (By definition, missing the barbecue is only a true punishment if, in fact, it works to prevent Ryan from blowing off his homework down the road.)
Now that you are clear about what a consequence is, let’s focus on how to use negative consequences effectively. I think of consequences as falling into three categories: natural, logical, and purely punitive. An illustration will clarify the distinction. Let’s imagine that Beatrice’s brother, Jesse, not only forgets to lock up his bike but also leaves his toys and balls outside when he is finished playing with them. Now imagine that when the bus arrives to pick the kids up for school, it runs over Jesse’s favorite basketball. What are his parents to do? They have three choices:
- They can do nothing and simply allow the destruction of the basketball to be the only consequence. This is a natural consequence; it happened without any effort on the part of his parents as a result of Jesse leaving the ball in the cul-de-sac.
- They can require that Jesse pay them back for the ball since they bought it for him and he did not take care of it. This is a logical consequence; it is logically related to the negative behavior.
- They can take away all electronics for three days since Jesse broke the household rule that outdoor toys be put in the garage after use. This is a purely punitive consequence; it is imposed by Mom and Dad and has no logical connection to the negative behavior.
Whenever possible, it is best to rely on natural consequences. They do no harm to the parent-child relationship, and they represent, better than other consequences, how the “real world” works. You don’t study for a test, you earn a low grade. You drink under-aged, you lose your driver’s license. You don’t show up for work, you lose your job. (From a parent’s perspective, a punishment – such as a low grade, a revoked license, getting fired – imposed by a teacher, a law enforcement officer, an employer, or any other authority figure is considered a natural consequence.)
The next best choice, if no negative consequences occur naturally, is a logical consequence, one imposed by a parent that has a meaningful connection to the negative behavior. For example, had Jesse’s ball not been flattened by the school bus, a logical consequence for leaving the ball outside in violation of the rule that toys be put in the garage after use might be loss of access to the ball for a period of time. Another common use of a logical consequence is repayment. I frequently hear from parents that their children beg for music lessons and then refuse to practice. An appropriate use of a logical consequence would be to set the expectation that the child practice for the amount of time specified by the teacher and then to inform the child that he will have to pay for a lesson (with money or with sweat equity) if he does not meet that expectation. For a younger child, an example of a logical consequence would be requiring her to assist with scrubbing the crayon marks off the wall after she scribbled on it.
Logical consequences are not always obvious, but if you think creatively, you will be able to come up with a consequence that is logically related to the misbehavior the vast majority of the time. To get your creative parenting juices flowing, come up with a logical consequence for each of the following misbehaviors. Be mindful of the age of the culprit so that you can match the consequence to the developmental level of the child. My ideas for logical consequences in these scenarios are at the end of this post.
- 3-year-old Theo, who has been building a tower with cans of soup while Mom puts the groceries away, suddenly throws a can at his older sister, hitting her on the shin.
- Dad discovers that 6-year-old Cindy has returned from a playdate at a neighbor’s house with a pocketful of Legos that do not belong to her.
- 9-year-old Nate invited two friends over to spend the night without first asking his parents.
- Mom discovers, upon opening the cell phone bill, that 12-year-old Twyla has racked up over $100 in overage charges.
- Dad discovers, upon opening the cellphone bill, that 15-year-old Fionn has been up until the wee hours of school nights on social media and texting with his buddies.
- Dad catches 18-year-old Amy sneaking out of the house after midnight with the keys to his car in hand.
When there are no natural consequences and you cannot come up with any logical consequences, then the judicious use of purely punitive consequences is okay. Here are some examples of purely punitive consequences I have heard about recently in my practice:
- In a tantrum, 7-year-old Sanders threw the 100 pieces of a jigsaw puzzle all over the playroom so Mom sent him to his room where he had to stay until he wrote a letter of apology.
- Because 10-year-old Timothy was uncooperative with the bedtime routine and acted disrespectfully toward Dad, he was not able to use his Xbox for a week.
- After 16-year-old Sylvia wore her mother’s sweater to school without permission, her parents grounded her for the week (this was one in a long series of similar “borrowing” incidents).
The final consideration in using consequences to address negative behavior is to make sure that the consequence is developmentally appropriate. Generally speaking, the younger the child, the more immediate and shorter-term the consequence should be. A negative consequence that is delayed or lasts too long will not be effective because a young child cannot make the connection between the behavior and the consequence. For this reason, Toy Time Out and Time Out work well for this age group (more on these strategies here). For older children and teenagers, consequences do not have to be so immediate and can span a bit of time, but they should never drag on and on. Never, for example, ground a teenager for an entire month. Over this length of time, the consequence will no longer feel connected to the behavior, and the young person will be missing out on opportunities to improve his behavior.
Positive consequences can also be very powerful as parents work to improve a child’s behavior. More on this in a subsequent post.
Now, here are some ideas (there are many other good ones!) for logical consequences for the six examples of misbehavior above:
- For Theo, putting the soup cans in Toy Time Out
- For Cindy, requiring her to write an apology note and return the stolen items
- For Nate, requiring him to explain to his friends that he did not have permission to plan a sleepover (and perhaps prohibiting sleepovers for a couple of weekends if this were not the first offense)
- For Twyla, taking away the cellphone until she can earn the money to cover the cost of the overages and providing her extra household tasks to do in order to earn the money
- For Fionn, requiring him to leave his cellphone and charger with his parents at a given time each night
- For Amy, taking away her driving privileges for two weeks (or longer if this were not the first offense)
Hopefully, this post helps to make clear how to use negative consequences effectively. Consequences are but one important tool for parents, but used mindfully and skillfully, they can make a big difference in a child’s behavior and in the parent-child relationship.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]