This post is part of a series on behavior management. The preceding post can be found HERE.
One of the crucial jobs of every parent is to teach a child about consequences.
Every behavior has a consequence. Every choice your child will ever make will have at least one consequence. Some consequences are good. Some are bad. Some are neutral. Nonetheless, children need to understand that every choice has consequences. This is what will make them mature and responsible adults.
How do children learn this crucial concept? You, the parent, must tell them. And then back up your words with actions.
It’s finally time to get down to business. Let’s talk about what to do with those problem behaviors. Let’s talk consequences.
Although it’s true that every behavior comes with a consequence, not every consequence will matter to a child. Take, for example, your college-self (or the college-self of someone you know, since you would never, ever do something like this…). You knew that one more drink would guarantee a bad morning, but, hey, you didn’t really have anything important going on the next morning anyway, right? The consequence was not effective to alter your behavior. Thus, in order for a consequence to to be effective, it must alter behavior. There are three key components to formulating effective consequences.
1. Consequences must be immediate. This means that when the problem behavior happens, you must respond immediately. Consequences can not wait until you are able to take a break, until there is a commercial break in your favorite show, or until Daddy gets home from work. They must happen immediately. This means that you need to have predetermined consequences in mind. Otherwise, you may fail to offer a consequence simply because you do not know what to do in the heat of the moment. Sit down with your list of targeted behaviors and determine what the consequences will be for each behavior. This will empower you to immediately address the problem behavior when it rears it’s ugly head. Certainly, there are times when it may not be possible to issue a consequence immediately. If this is truly the case, firmly inform your child that the consequence will be issued. As soon as you return home, or to another appropriate place where you can offer your consequence, remind the child exactly what he did to earn this consequence. Yes, his behavior earned the consequence. It is crucial to make that connection. The younger the child is, the more effort it will take to make this connection. But don’t fool yourself, even big kids can convince themselves that you are some arbitrary consequence-dispensing machine, and completely sever the connection between their behavior and the consequences you impose. As such, make sure you’re clearly connecting the behavior to the consequence for children of all ages – even if it seems too elementary for your child.
2. In order to help children form the connection between behavior and consequence, consequences should be logical. This simply means that, when possible, the punishment should fit the crime. If Suzy colors on the wall, perhaps part of her punishment should be helping clean the wall. That’s logical. My favorite logical consequence at our house is “statue practice.” Any offense that is the result of poor bodily self-control earns “statue practice.” For statue practice, my littles stand at attention against the wall. They must be still and silent, like statues. We have times designated by offense, with some, but few, exceptions based on age. (We simply do not use the “one minute per year of age” rule. That was never effective for us.) Time starts over if the statue fails to remain statuesque. This is a logical consequence because, by being a statue, the child is learning to master the bodily self-control they demonstrated as lacking by their offense.
3. Finally, and most importantly, consequences must be meaningful to your child. It doesn’t do any good to take away Johnny’s truck as a consequence when he has 30 more in the closet. Nor does it make sense to confiscate Judy’s iPad, when she still has an iPhone and a laptop to use in its place. These consequences may slightly annoy your child, but they aren’t meaningful enough to get the message across. Yes, what I’m telling you is that your child needs to genuinely dislike the consequence which you are imposing. Don’t play nice. Pull out the big guns. They need to suffer a little bit. If this is a behavior that you really want to stop, you need to issue a consequence that sends that message. What is your child’s favorite possession? That’s probably what you need to use to effectively alter the problem behavior. It may be uncomfortable to cause that kind of discomfort for your child, but you need to suck it up. This is where I bring in the well-known”spare the rod; spoil the child.” I’m not literally using a rod, but my resolve must be as firm as a rod. Without such resolve, I will indeed spoil my children.
Sit down with your spouse and other caregivers and look at your list of targeted behaviors. Then, review the three components of effective consequences. Assign a consequence to each behavior, so you are prepared to act immediately. It’s ok if the same consequence gets used for multiple behaviors, just make sure to always connect the consequence to the original behavior. Say something like, “Tommy, you will not be permitted to use electronic devices for the rest of the day because you______________.” Do you understand? When you chose to __________, you chose to accept the consequences of ____________. Every time you _________, you will loose access to your electronics.”
It is also a good idea to keep a go-to consequence in your back pocket for any unique misbehaviors that may occur. These may not alway be logical, but it keeps you from scrambling for a consequence when something unexpected occurs. This could be writing lines or writing definitions of positive character traits/virtues. It could be “time out.” It can be anything your child views as unpleasant and that you can dish out immediately.
Please be aware: your children will test you. In most cases, the targeted behavior will get worse before it gets better. This does not mean you are failing; it means your child is pushing it to see if you’re really serious. Stand firm. Issue your consequence every time. Remember, “spare the rod; spoil the child.”