This is the meat and potatoes – the stuff that everyone wants to know! When I am consulting or presenting, the attention in the room immediately becomes more focused when you start talking about consequences. What do we actually do when they are mucking up? I usually see light bulbs lighting up – oh, that’s what consequences are all about. You will see, it is not so much about being hard or soft, but more about doing it right.

Key points

  • Consequences should only be metered out from the age of three.
  • Be consistent.
  • Remove emotion so the child can focus on how the consequence follows their behaviour.
  • Screaming doesn’t work.
  • If things don’t work, stop and think about what’s behind the childs behaviour.

There are three types of useful consequences

In descending order of preference:

  1. Natural consequences—this is where there is a natural flow from the misdemeanour to the consequence. Examples would include: if your child refuses to have dinner they go to bed  hungry, or if they ignore your reminders to complete their school assignment they get a big F on their report card. A natural consequence many adults would be familiar with would be a hangover after a big night!Natural consequences have a momentum of their own. However, we can’t allow all natural consequences to happen (eg if our child decided to play on the freeway without our permission, the natural consequence would be they’d get hit by a car). We allow those that do not result in harm and provide a needed teaching moment.
  2. Related consequences — in this scenario there is a link between the unwanted behaviour and the result (this is also sometimes called a ‘logical consequence’). Examples of these would include if a child makes a mess, she must clean it up, or if two children are fighting over a toy, the toy gets taken away for a while. Related (and natural) consequences allow a child to link the unwanted behaviour with the consequence.
  3. Losing a privilege— these involve the loss of a desired privilege because of an unwanted behaviour. This can be very powerful technique as it focuses our child’s attention, but is more punitive than natural and related consequences and there is no logical link between behaviour and consequence. We should only withdraw privileges with care (it’s easy to go over the top here and cause resentment), and your child should be warned beforehand that they are going to lose that particular privilege for that particular unwanted behaviour.

Consequences should only be meted out from the age of three — younger than this and they just don’t get it. Under this age it is more about withdrawing your attention when the unwanted behaviour is happening.

When it comes to consequences we should:

  • Be consistent—both with your child over time (avoid delivering a consequence one day and forgetting the next!), between parents, and across all siblings (excluding the under threes).
  • Pre-warn our kids —this enables them to learn more effectively and be less resentful.
  • Keep them small — it doesn’t take much of a consequence to create a learning moment. Being over the top just increases the likelihood of unwanted outcomes, such as defiance and resentment. If kids focus too much of the consequence they’re likely to forget what we are even trying to teach them.
  • Deliver promptly—this makes the link stronger, but always make sure you are calm first.

Delivering consequence

When a consequence is delivered it shouldn’t come with a whole lot of emotional baggage attached.  Keep commentary to a minimum. A good analogy here is of you getting a parking ticket – the punishment fits the crime (you shouldn’t have parked in the no parking zone!), and there is no emotional delivery as the inspector puts the ticket on your car. He’s just doing his job. That’ll learn ya’ – you won’t park there again in a hurry.  

If we don’t allow emotion a seat at the table, our child can completely focus on how the consequence follows their behaviour. As a result they learn faster. Keeping emotions in check can of course be hard when our blood is up. Think clenched jaws and steam coming out of ears. If you’re Mother Teresa and Ghandi rolled into one you could even try to deliver the consequence with warmth.  Your kid stills get the consequence (we’re not going to be weak — we’re still going to write the ticket) but this is a bad moment for them, and a little warmth can go a long way (‘I know missing your favourite TV show is upsetting for you. Let’s see if we can figure out something else to do.’)

Things that don’t work

We’ve talked about some of the things that work for dealing with unwanted behaviours (ignoring and consequences). Let’s talk about some of the things that don’t work.

Screaming doesn’t work. I am reminded here of Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers, talking to Manuel (he, from Barcelona) in an inappropriately loud volume because Manuel had limited English skills. It didn’t work. Manuel still didn’t understand ‘Meester Fawlty.’

Screaming at your kid will not improve communication, will not improve their understanding, will certainly not teach them effectively, and, when done repeatedly, will undermine your authority. You are basically showing them this is all you’ve got in the teaching tool kit. You end up looking ineffective – even a bit desperate.

Other things that are unlikely to work include:

  • constantly explaining,
  • repeatedly warning,
  • threatening,
  • pleading,
  • arguing,
  • bribing,
  • smacking (more on this later) and
  • giving in.

If things aren’t working, we need to stop and have a think. What exactly is behind our child’s behaviour? Are we approaching this the wrong way? Should we be changing tack? Unfortunately, people can get locked into an approach that isn’t working;

When what you are doing isn’t working, you tend to do more of the same with greater intensity.

Bill Maynard and Tom Champou

This change needs to come from us, not our children. We are the guide here. This is not giving in, but actually showing or kids that flexibility is a good thing, a way of getting around a difficult situation.