Updated: Feb 5
What is the right consequence when children misbehave? Many parents believe that if they can just find the ‘right’ consequence, they can eradicate unacceptable behavior. Though consequences are necessary at times, they are not the most important ingredient needed to achieve effective, sustainable, positive behavior in children. Often, parental attempts at addressing misbehavior becomes an endless game of “Whack-a-Mole” (misbehavior, consequence; misbehavior, consequence; and so on and so on……). Eventually, parents run out of options and patience. The bottom line: From age 3 on children who misbehave on a regular basis do so because their parents allow it.
Parents who find themselves caught up in a “whack-a-mole” cycle of discipline have not established themselves as true leaders of the family. One of the greatest mistakes that parents make is assuming they can demand respect from their children. Demanding respect involves threatening and/or punishing. Effective leaders do not demand respect, they command it. Commanding respect is the result of others admiring your actions and willingly following your guidance; a process that occurs over time and is rooted in trust. Parents of well-behaved children have earned their children’s respect and trust. Deep down, the children believe their parents know what is in their best interest.
Enacting consequences should not be the first line of defense in child rearing. Parents do better to master key components of communication that effective leaders possess that include word choice, tone of voice and active listening. Below is a list of steps to follow when speaking to a child; steps that set the stage for attentive, active listening:
Teach your child to look others straight in the eye. Expect it from your child when speaking to him/her.
Once you have your child's full attention, speak in a calm, clear, sincere, authoritative tone.
Say what you mean, mean what you say, and say it one time. Repeating often reinforces poor listening.
When addressing misbehavior, use as few words as possible. Less is more!
When correcting a child, cite the misbehavior and state the consequence (if applicable) in a manner of fact manner.
Let your child know that you expect him/her to do the right thing going forward and that you trust that will be the case. No discussion needed.
Many parents today rely on threats, bribes, giving in and giving up in response to their children’s misbehaviors. For others, consequences are their primary disciplinary method. For more than a few parents, however, consequences prove to be insufficient as they (parents) fear being too harsh. Parents who, misguidedly, want to be their child's friend or are worried their child won't like them fall into this category. Threats, bribes, giving in and/or giving up demonstrate no leadership at all. To be optimally effective, consequences should be used sparingly and approached thoughtfully.
Below are five important Core Understandings About Consequences:
1. Consequences are not the end-all-be-all when it comes to disciplining children.
2. Relying excessively on consequences to address misbehavior is a sign that effective parental leadership is lacking.
3. Consequences may be warranted when a child deliberately misbehaves in ways that demonstrate a lack of reasonable, age-appropriate responsibility and/or disrespect for parental leadership.
4. Consequences that are highly meaningful to the child stand the best chance of thwarting future misbehavior (i.e., foregoing a birthday party, a sleepover, driving privileges)
5. Consequences should get the child’s attention in a BIG way.
Since young children have no preconceived understanding of consequences, parents are well advised to begin the practice of implementing strict, exacting consequences early in a child’s life. A consequence that is too ‘soft’ virtually guarantees the misbehavior will recur.
[As psychologist John Rosemond espouses, the punishment should never fit the crime. If the crime ranks a 3 on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most severe, the punishment should rank at least a 6-7.]
Example: If you allow your 9-year-old to ride his/her bike to a friend’s house down the street, but later discover that he/she rode to another friend’s house in another area of the neighborhood without permission, taking bike privileges away for a month will have a much greater impact than taking bike privileges away for 3 days.
Important to Note:
Misbehaviors in toddlers (under age 3) must be addressed when the behavior occurs and generally involve strategies such as: removing the child from the situation, short time-outs behind a gate, redirecting, using a firm, stern tone of voice, etc. Between 3-3.5 years most children can remember events that occurred the previous day. As such, consequences for misbehavior can be delayed up to 24 hours.
Example: if a child misbehaves on a Thursday, and something highly meaningful to the child is scheduled for Friday, forbidding the child to participate in the Friday event would constitute a more meaningful, more effective, consequence.
Though timely consequences are ideal, If a more meaningful consequence requires that implementation be delayed, below is a general 'rule-of-thumb' guide by age:
5-6 years old (3 days)
7-9 years old (up to a week)
10-12 years old (2-4 weeks)
Strong parenting provides children with a sense of security that also allows them to flourish. When behavioral expectations are ineffective and enforcement erratic, children end up chasing a moving target or worse, dodging bullets (ultimately making them feel less secure). If you are struggling to discipline your child(ren), it’s time to take out the mirror! Accept that the course you are on is not working and commit to making needed changes. Become the loving, authoritative leader your child deserves. Your children are absolutely worth it (and so is your sanity!).
© Sharon Knapp Lamberth, March 29, 2021