Confronting Misbehavior

There are 2 choices when it comes to dealing with misbehavior: ignore it (allow) or manage it (consequences). Misbehavior that is ignored leads to more misbehavior, the magnitude of which continues to grow exponentially. Many parents today spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prevent misbehavior by ensuring that their children remain content. The assumption being that if children are content, they are less likely to misbehave. Though such reasoning may sound logical, the means required to accomplish the end (coercing, bribing, negotiating) are not logical but have actually become a standard practice, no longer seen as an impractical and unrealistic mode of operation.

When parents focus on making sure children are content, effectively correcting misbehavior becomes more difficult. For some parents, it requires “hitting a brick wall” repeatedly before fully realizing that in their attempts to create a perpetually content (happy) child they have created an unsustainable and unhealthy situation.

Of course, the reality is that all children misbehave. The purpose of a consequence is to prevent a misbehavior from recurring. Questions submitted to our team of parent coaches indicate that parents struggle to effectively manage misbehaviors often due to inconsistency in holding their children accountable and in setting the consequence bar too low. A low consequence bar virtually guarantees that misbehavior will recur.

In order for sustainable change to result, a consequence must be highly meaningful. The good news is that to children a consequence is simply a consequence. Since young children have no preconceived notion of what an appropriate consequence for their misdeed is, parents need to start early making consequences highly meaningful. Noted psychologist and author, John Rosemond, shares that highly impactful consequences should never fit the crime. A “crime” that rates a 3 on a scale of 1-10 (10 being the most severe), should be given a consequence that rates about a 7. If parents start early making consequences highly meaningful to the child, it sends a clear message that the unacceptable behavior(s) is not to be repeated.

By age 3, permanent memories begin to form, opening the window for delaying consequences. If a 3-year-old misbehaves during an outing to a store on a Wednesday morning and there are other errands to run, implementing a consequence later in the day is acceptable. As children progress from age 3 to 4, the misbehavior-to-consequence window widens. At 4,5 and 6 years of age, consequences can occur several days after the incident. Thus, if there is an upcoming weekend event planned (a special playdate, birthday party, visit to grandmother’s house), missing the event may indeed be more meaningful to the child than sitting in time-out and going to bed early the night of the incident.

For a 7–9-year-old child, consequences can easily be imposed a week later; 2-4 weeks for middle schoolers; months for teens. A teenager may be informed several months after the fact that because of a poor choice made on (date/description), he/she will not be able to ________________ (fill in the blank). Parents should feel no obligation to share the specifics of a consequence in advance. Sometimes it is better to say nothing since the element of surprise can be a great future deterrent. Though many parents wouldn’t dream of taking away a party, special event, or trip, invoking a less meaningful consequence will likely lessen the impact. In order to successfully nip a behavior in the bud, the child needs to be the one feeling the most pain.

One need only to watch the daily news to see that we are living in a time where bad behavior is widespread, with change desperately needed. A fundamental responsibility of child-rearing is to teach children proper behavior and that misbehaviors have consequences. Not only do big consequences send a clear message that parents are serious, but they also tap into the child’s emotions. Emotions drive attention and attention drives learning and memory. Big, meaningful consequences are far more likely to be remembered.

When children know they are loved unconditionally, and the ultimate goal is to help them become more reflective, respectful, and responsible, consequences that are the most meaningful to the child stand the best chance of optimally impacting behavior in a positive way.

©Sharon Knapp Lamberth, March 2022