The Consequence of Using Consequences
I don’t really see the harm in teaching a child that their actions have consequences. Isn’t that the first step in helping our children live in a civilized society? As long as the consequences are not unfair and fit the behavior, I think it is probably a good thing to teach. I explain to my son that if he does A (positive behavior), one thing will happen; and if he does B (negative behavior), a different thing will happen. I help him decide which action he will choose and that way give him autonomy. If he makes what adults would consider the ‘right’ choice, then he gets praise. But if the other choice is made, we go through with the consequence without any further anger/frustration etc. on my part. When these occasions happen (and they are few and far between) the matter is always resolved quickly and happily and the ‘wrong’ choice is rarely repeated.2
I agree with this statement to an extent. For example, I have no qualms with saying, “if you put your hand on that hot pot, then you will get burned and it will hurt.” Where I’ve started to differ is in consequences that are meant solely to extinguish an unwanted behavior. For example, “if you try to put your hand on that hot pot again, then you will not be able to eat any of the applesauce that we are making.” The consequences there are to deter the child from touching the hot pot, but they don’t make much sense – that kiddo is probably just really excited to eat applesauce. Why not focus on that feeling of excitement instead of the behavior? (“It is so exciting to make special treats, isn’t it? I’m really hungry for applesauce too, but we can’t touch the pot because it is hot and we will get hurt. How about we set this timer, and when it beeps we will know that the applesauce is done cooking. While the applesauce cooks, let’s go play a game!”)
Same thing for any other situation: “If you don’t take your dinner plate to the sink, then you will not get dessert.” If we focus on why the child does not want to take his plate in, we’re more likely to deepen our connection with him – to find a way to cooperate – than if we merely threaten to take away some privilege.
Using rewards and consequences works against my goal of deepening my connection with my child. It may also work against my goal of encouraging my child to behave in a way that is respectful, safe, and kind, since rewards and consequences do little to teach children why certain behavior is inappropriate, inconvenient, or dangerous.
Up until Kieran was born, I would have agreed entirely with the quote above. In fact, some of my interactions with Kieran still reflect this belief. Just the other day, I took Kieran and one of his friends to a gym for “open preschool gymnastics.” One of the rules of the gym is that only one child can be on their trampolines at a time. But darn it – those trampolines are fun, and Kieran and his friend wanted to jump together! I don’t blame them. I cannot tell you how many times I said “Kieran, please get off, it’s Joshua’s turn.” Or “Joshua, please let Kieran have his turn for another minute, then it will be your turn.” I cannot tell you how many times they ignored me. And so there were several instances where I was frustrated (because they were ignoring me) and embarrassed (because one of the staff members had to come over and ask the boys to take turns).
And what did I find myself doing? Doling out consequences. “Kieran, if you do not get off the trampoline right now, we are going to go sit on the benches for a minute so that we can calm down.” Would that have solved the problem? I don’t know – I guess he would have thought twice about getting on the trampoline when Joshua was jumping.
The Problem with Consequences
So what’s wrong with threatening (albeit in a kind but firm voice) consequences? I do not want to make Kieran’s chief motivation for behaving in a certain way to *avoid consequences*, and that is what doling out consequences teaches children. “If you do this, then that negative thing will happen.” The children avoid doing “this” in order to avoid “that,” the motivation is not internal, but external.
Instead, I’d like Kieran to understand more why behavior may or may not be acceptable. I want to model for him – and for him to act out of – respect to others, concern for his own well-being, etc. (And I’m not saying that parents who believe in using consequences/punishments do NOT want these things! We are just working toward this end goal in two different ways.)
As the authors of Respectful Parents Respectful Kids discuss, I believe that using rewards/punishments do not further Kieran’s safety or trust in himself or in me. I believe that they take away his desire to cooperate with me. I believe that consequences/punishments make him resentful, and rewards take away his inherent pleasure from whatever “positive” behavior he is doing.3
Focus on Needs, Not Behavior
When I focus on Kieran’s behavior (by doling out rewards or consequences) instead of the needs and/or feelings behind the behavior, I miss what’s really going on. I am not teaching him how to address his needs, I’m just teaching him to do or not to do X or Y.
What’s more, focusing on Kieran’s behavior tends to make me more frustrated. When I’m concentrating on how he might be inconveniencing me (i.e., if he makes a mess that I’ll have to clean up, or he is having a meltdown and it’s giving me a headache, etc.), I am making the behavior about me. When I concentrate on why he might be making a mess (he likes the feel of the flour running through his fingers! he likes to manipulate the water pouring in and out of the cups!) or having a meltdown (he’s hungry! tired! lonely!), I forget about how it affects me – I focus on Kieran’s needs, and I’m more willing and able to help him meet those needs in appropriate ways.
For example, let’s say Kieran is throwing his toys across the room. I have a choice – I could focus on the behavior, and it might look like this:
“Kieran! Stop throwing those toys! Look, you could break my nice picture frame. You could put a hole in the wall. You could break the toy. And now we have to clean up a big mess!” What kind of response would this get for me? Probably an even grumpier, sadder Kieran.
Instead, what if I responded by focusing on the needs behind the behavior:
“Kieran, I see you are throwing your toys. Are you frustrated about something? You were working on a puzzle over there, did you need help finishing it?” (Checking in to see if he’s frustrated) or “It’s been awhile since we had a snuggle and a snack, do you want to help me get some fruit cut up?” (Checking in to see if he has a creature comfort that has not been met). There are so many ways I could choose to make a connection with Kieran, rather than jumping to consequences.
Alternatives to Consequences
So . . . how could I have connected with Kieran at gymnastics instead of threatening to take him away from the trampoline? Here are a few ideas I had in retrospect:
- Explain the natural consequences: “When two people jump on the trampoline at the same time, they might jump too close together and bonk heads. That could hurt both of you.”
- Sit them down and let them work out a solution: If parents refrained from intervening, or if they gave children the choice to find a solution on their own, they will often be surprised by what kids can come up with without our “help.”
- Offer alternatives: If they were having trouble coming up with a workable solution, I could have offered several alternatives and let them choose which they preferred. (i.e., “Should we find something different to do for awhile, and then come back to the trampolines and take turns? Or maybe we could have one person wait for the trampoline next to this one so you could jump at the same time? Or we could move to the small trampolines where no one is jumping?”)
- Turn waiting into a game: “While you are waiting for your turn to jump, I’m going to push you on this big foam ball!”
- Turn taking turns into a game: “Let’s do some counting during each of your turns. Kieran, you jump on the trampoline and we’ll count to 30. Joshua, you jump in the foam pit and we’ll count to 30. Once we say 30, you have to switch as FAST as you can. Ready? GO!”
- Help him identify his feelings: “It is frustrating to wait sometimes, isn’t it? It makes you angry that you have to let someone else have a turn. You really want to be on that trampoline right now. I wish I could jump on it too. Let’s jump here on the floor together and talk about how mad we are!”
- Offered him the choice of taking a breather: Sometimes kids just need a minute to calm down, and if we help them learn to identify this feeling, they can learn to willingly take that minute themselves. Kieran is usually pretty good about taking time to breathe and reflect if he’s feeling to worked up, and I could have offered that as a choice instead of threatening him with “a minute to calm down on the bench.” When it’s a threat, when that choice is taken from the child, the moment to breathe will not be nearly as effective.
What about you – do you notice a difference when you focus on needs rather than on behaviors?
Do you feel that consequences are a normal part of discipline, or do you try to avoid using them?
What do you do instead of using consequences?
- By the way, the Facebook discussion stemmed from a conversation on the NPN Forums out of our online book discussion about Respectful Parents Respectful Kids – if this post is interesting to you, I encourage you to join us! ↩
- I asked my reader if it was ok to use her quote for this post, and I sent her a very rough draft of what I was planning on talking about. She clarified her first paragraph with a second. She said: Depending on the ‘crime’ the consequence does not need to be a punishment. Very often I will say ‘if you do such and such mummy will be upset’ or ‘if you do such and such mummy will be very happy and proud.’ Consequences needn’t always be about time outs or confiscations. Even when I have used concrete consequences for negative behavior I use the opportunity to tell my son how is actions have affected myself and/or others. And most importantly I explain to my son the consequences of his actions for both negatives and positives. ↩
- For more, see Respectful Parents Respectful Kids at Chapter 3. ↩
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"The Consequence of Using Consequences"
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