Use Consequences to Improve Your Child’s Behavior

Categories: Parenting.

Well-disciplined children become well-disciplined and responsible adults.  A great method for instilling responsibility and discipline in your children is to use natural and logical consequences.  Natural consequences are results of actions that happen as expected.  For example, when you eat too much you feel sick and have an upset stomach, when you stay up too late you are sleepy the next day, etc.  We learn a great deal from simply understanding that actions have certain predictable consequences.  Children learn valuable lessons from experiencing the consequences of their choices.  For instance, my 5 year old son is learning that when he leaves his toys outside they can get ruined or stolen.  He’s learning to take care of his things.  If I always pick up after him he won’t learn how to be responsible with his things.

Michael Popkin, PhD, creator of the “Active Parenting” program, says that natural consequences help parents because the natural result of the child’s actions is the disciplinarian rather than the parent.  This allows the parent to act as a sympathetic observer while their child is learning from the “School of Hard Knocks.” He warns parents to avoid two temptations when allowing natural consequences to teach your child; 1) avoid the urge to rescue your child, and 2) avoid saying “I told you so” or in other ways “rubbing it in.”

Doctor Popkin identifies three situations when you can’t use natural consequences to teach your child.  The first is when the consequence is dangerous.  For instance, you can’t allow your child to play in the street to learn the possible consequence of getting hit by a car.  The second situation is when the natural consequence is very far in the future, such as an eighth grader realizing his choices now affect his future career choices. The third situation is when the child’s choices affect other people.  Therefore, you can’t allow your child to learn from natural consequences if it puts other people in harm’s way.

When natural consequences won’t work, parents need to create their own set of consequences to teach their children.  These parent-created consequences are called “Logical Consequences” because they are logically related to the behavior.   For example, what would you do to help your 8 year old boy have better “aim” when using the toilet?  He’s making a mess and someone has to clean it up.  It makes sense that he should clean up his mess around the toilet. So when the parent (usually the mother) notices this problem, she should give the boy the cleaning supplies and teach him how to clean the toilet.  This promotes self-responsibility and ownership for the behavior.  He’ll quickly learn that the effort to aim well outweighs the hassle of cleaning the toilet.  That is how a logical consequence works.  The consequence is connected to the behavior, teaches responsibility, and is given in a calm yet firm manner.

Dr. Popkin offers some guidelines for using logical consequences.  First, allow your child to help decide the consequence.  Secondly, give the consequence as a choice (i.e., “When you make a mess like this, you can either clean the toilet or I’ll deduct $2.00 from your allowance as payment for cleaning the toilet for you.”). Thirdly, make sure the consequence is logically tied to the misbehavior.  Making your son do 100 pushups because he has bad aim isn’t logical.  It won’t help him learn responsibility and will seem more like a punishment than a consequence.  Fourth, give choices you can handle.  If you are a certified “clean freak” and you have to clean the bathroom yourself, then you won’t be able to handle your son cleaning it as a consequence (and you probably need to relax a bit).

The fifth guideline is to communicate in a calm yet firm manner. When a parent has a temper tantrum, it teaches the child to have temper tantrums.  If you are weak in stating the consequence, your child will probably not take you seriously.  Don’t state the consequence and then ask “OK?”, this only gives the child unnecessary power.  Sixth, follow through with the consequence.  Once your child knows the consequence of his choice, you must be consistent in following through with the consequence. Finally, Dr. Popkin cautions that you should expect your child to test you about the consequence.  In other words, a power struggle may ensue at first.  However, the parent who is consistent will prevail.

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