By Susan Kurlander, M. Ed.
Your 5 year old leaves his bike in the driveway overnight. Not realizing it was there, you ride over it the next morning. The bike is demolished.
You find out your 11 year old was texting her friend at 11 o’clock p.m., way after her normal bedtime.
What do you do? Most likely, we think of punishments that we hope will change our children’s behavior, restrictions we arbitrarily put in place after the behavior happens. But, do those punishments always encourage the child to make a better decision the next time? Or, are they angry with you for making a big deal about something they may not see as that terrible?
The word “punish” comes from the root word meaning “to inflict pain.” When we punish our children, although sometimes necessary, we run the risk of rupturing our relationship with them, causing them to resent or fear us, and to make them feel unable to make choices.
So, what can we do? We can’t let unhealthy, risky and potentially damaging behaviors go by unnoticed. We want our children to think before they act, not after the fact. We want them to consider the consequences of their actions knowing that if they choose a certain behavior, they are also choosing a possible consequence.
The word “consequence” derives from the root word meaning “to arrive at a conclusion.” The benefit of using consequences whenever possible helps our children to understand that they are accountable for the decisions they make. Facing a consequence, especially one talked about before the behavior happens, can help a child develop self-control and self-discipline. That inner locus of control will be most important when they are making decisions without your being there or, with the possibility, of your never finding out about the behavior.
Some examples of “natural consequences,” consequences that happen without your input, may include:
- Leaving a bike out in the rain may cause it to get rusty and not ride properly.
- Texting while walking may cause you to trip and fall.
- Watching TV instead of studying for a test may mean you fail the test.
Oftentimes, we need to spell out the consequences of certain behaviors, or to create “logical consequences.” This works best when discussed ahead of time and when the child is included in the discussion:
- If texting happens after bedtime, cell phone use will be off limits after a certain time. Perhaps the child has to turn off their phone at bedtime and give it to you for safe keeping until the next morning.
- If valuables are not taken care of and become damaged, replacement will not be automatic. Perhaps they have to save up money from their allowance, chores or a job to replace the item.
- If dinner is not eaten, there will be no dessert.
Because a consequence happens when a child chooses a particular behavior, the child has a sense of power and choice and can attempt to fix the problem, rebuild trust and make amends. In other words, it is more likely that the child can learn not to engage in the same behavior again.
Some guidelines to follow when considering consequences:
- Don’t allow natural consequences when they are dangerous, too costly, too far in the future for the child to learn from them, or not age appropriate
- Choose consequences that relate to the behavior
- Don’t overdo by setting up a consequences for every action
- Don’t protect children from appropriate natural consequences
- Plan the consequence together with the child in a loving and respectful way
(guidelines taken from the “Roots and Wings” curriculum developed by Hazelden)
Also, don’t forget that logical consequences can be positive. Saving a weekly allowance may mean that something special can then be purchased. Doing homework after school may allow the child time to watch TV later in the evening.
Use consequences as an alternative to punishment whenever possible. Doing that will help your child realize that, in many ways, he or she is in control of their own destiny.
By Susan Kurlander, M. Ed., Health Educator, JCS Prevention Education
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