The ultimate goal for any parent is teaching their child to develop self-discipline, responsibility and consideration for others. Discipline works best when it’s about teaching children and encouraging good behaviour. It also helps if parents are trying to communicate well with their children and build close relationships with them.
When parents are focused on catching their children being good, and using the other strategies described in this toolkit, they will need to use consequences less. However, there are times when a negative consequence for difficult behaviour is needed. Consequences are used to enforce limits and reinforce rules when simple reminders haven't worked.
It really pays to put some thought into how and why you might use consequences. Because if you overuse negative consequences or use them badly or inconsistently, they can have surprising and unwanted effects.
Behaviour and consequences
When it comes to consequences, there are three common scenarios:
- Your child behaves in a particular way and receives a positive consequence. This increases the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the same circumstances in the future.
- Your child behaves in a particular way and avoids a negative consequence. This increases the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the same circumstances in the future.
- Your child behaves in a particular way and receives a negative consequence or no consequence at all. This decreases the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the same circumstances in the future.
A consequence that seems negative to you might be positive to your child. For example, your child’s favourite activity is the sandpit. If your child bites another child while playing with some blocks, and is moved away to the sandpit, this will actually reinforce his behaviour. To him, it looks like the consequence of biting is getting to play in the sandpit!
Here are three effective types of consequences that you could consider adding to your parenting toolkit:
1. Natural consequences
Sometimes it’s best to let children experience the natural consequences of their own behaviour. When children experience the results of their behaviour, they can learn that their actions have consequences. They might learn to take responsibility for what they do.
Here are some examples of using natural consequences:
- If your child refuses to put on a coat, let her get cold.
- If your child won’t eat, let him feel hungry.
- If your child doesn’t complete her homework, let her fail the assignment.
- If your child breaks a rule on the sporting field, he’ll have to take the penalty.
These are important but hard lessons, and life is often a better and faster teacher than parents are. And you don’t have to be the unfair, bad guy. You can feel for them, but saying ‘I told you so’ puts you back in their bad books.
Sometimes you do need to step in to protect children from the natural consequences of behaviour. The consequence of dangerous behaviour could be serious injury, and the consequence of persistently avoiding schoolwork can be educational failure. Sometimes natural consequences can actually reward antisocial behaviour – for example, aggressive behaviour can be rewarded when a victim gives into a bully.
2. Related consequences
A ‘related consequence’ (sometimes called a ‘logical consequence’) is when parents impose a consequence that is related to the behaviour they wish to discourage. For example:
- If a child is mucking around and spills his drink, he must wipe it up.
- If a bike is left in the driveway, it gets put away for the rest of the afternoon.
- If children are fighting over a toy, the toy is put away for 10 minutes.
The advantage of related consequences is they get the child to think about the issue, they feel fairer, and they tend to work better than consequences that seem irrelevant. But it’s not always easy or possible to find a related consequence.
3. Losing a privilege
With this type of consequence, the child loses access to a favourite object or activity because of unacceptable behaviour. The ‘privilege’ is not necessarily related to the difficult behaviour. For example:
- A child who is not cooperating with his mum might lose the privilege of a lift to footy training.
- A child who swears at her dad might lose TV time.
is another type of consequence. It involves having your child go to a place – a corner, chair or room – that is apart from interesting activities, and other people, for a short period of time. It can be used for particularly difficult behaviour, or occasions when you both are feeling very angry and you need to take a break from each other to calm down. Read more about time-out
Important points about consequences
It is important to remember that if children clearly understand what is expected of them and you regularly encourage them for doing it, they are less likely to do things that require consequences.
There are some important factors to consider when implementing any form of consequence:
Use consequences consistently. Related consequences, loss of privileges or time-out as a last resort might be used when the child ignores reminders and breaks rules, but you should apply them in the same way and for the same kinds of behaviour every time. It’s very confusing for children if something they do earns a negative consequence today but did not do so yesterday.
Apply negative consequences to all children in the family. Even very young children will be upset if they see other children not being treated in the same way as them.
Keep consequences short. They don’t have to be harsh, mean or long to be effective. The advantage of keeping a consequence short is that you quickly give your child an opportunity to try again. For example, if the television is turned off for 10 minutes because children are fighting over it, they will quickly have another opportunity to solve the problem in a different way. If it is turned off for the rest of the day, there are no more opportunities in the day for them to learn to manage the situation differently. Also, a long consequence can be worse for parents than children – a child deprived of his bike for a week is likely to get bored and cranky!
Reserve consequences for children over three. Children younger than this won’t really understand consequences, particularly if they don’t understand the connection between their actions and the outcomes of those actions. Consequences will just feel unfair to them.
- Wherever possible, explain consequences to the children ahead of time so they don’t come as a surprise. If you talk to the children about possible consequences, they’re less likely to be resentful and angry when they are implemented. Negotiating consequences ahead of time makes them more effective and easier to implement if they are ever needed.
- In most situations, warn your children before you implement the consequence. For example, ‘Guys, this yelling is just too loud for me! If you can’t work out what to watch on television without screaming at each other, I will turn it off for 10 minutes’. Beware of the trap of repeated warnings or not following through. The exception to giving a warning before a consequence is where you have a well-established family rule. There might be important rules where a consequence will immediately follow the breaking of the rule.
Timeliness is important. Consequences work better when they occur as soon as possible after the behaviour.
- On the other hand, it’s best not to impose a consequence immediately if you are feeling very angry. There is a danger that you might overreact and be too harsh. Instead, say something like, ‘I am feeling very angry at the moment. We will talk about this again in a couple of minutes when I am feeling calmer’.
It pays to implement consequences calmly and in a neutral tone. Try not to make it personal – instead of talking about a ‘bad child’, talk about the rule and the child’s behaviour. Getting very angry or frustrated makes the child more likely to think about how mad you are (which can be rather entertaining, scary or exciting) rather than about learning from the situation.