The Effective Use of Consequences
In the 1980s, the notion of using "consequences" as a means of developing and reinforcing desired behavioral patterns in children was popularized among child specialists and parents alike. The methodology was probably best articulated for the public in a landmark book called Positive Discipline authored by Jane Nelson and published in 1981. The basic approach involved establishing consequences for specific misbehaviors that were aimed at helping children experience the results of their mistakes.
The intent behind the approach was to promote responsibility, accountability, and cooperative problem solving between parents and children. The approach became so popular during the 80s that we found parents looking for a consequence to modify almost every action that a child undertook in any given day. As often happens, a very good tool was overused and weakened by inappropriate employment. I believe Dr. Nelson mentions this in the current edition of her book. Her stance is that there are many tools for improving behavior, and using consequences is only one of them. The key is to understand what consequences can offer, what they are, and when they are appropriate. If used in this way, they can be highly effective in assisting children with developing productive behavior patterns, emotional growth, and a positive self-image.
Before talking about the specific ways in which consequences can be employed, it would be helpful to lay out some basic assumptions regarding discipline. Very often the terms discipline and punishment are used interchangeably, however, they are not the same at all. Within the scheme of positive parenting, discipline is actually contrary to the notion of punishment. Let's take a look.
Functions of Discipline
Why do we discipline our children? The most obvious answer is because we need them to behave in ways that allow them (and us) to function on a day to day basis. There are many other reasons that can be cited such as to instill in them certain values we think are important for their ultimate well being. Or perhaps, we are helping them learn how to contribute as part of a group. We might be concerned about how they function at school, at church, at baseball practice, or in other social settings. Some of our reasons are concerned with what's happening at the moment and in the near future, and some of them are aimed at the child's future well being and capacity to function in the world when we are not there to guide them. In other words, discipline has both short-term and long-term goals. Short-terms goals are usually aimed at modifying, inhibiting, or changing behaviors quickly. Longer-term goals have to do with instilling values, promoting responsibility, developing self-discipline, and so forth.
When considering a method of discipline, we must consider both the short and long-term goals. More importantly, we must consider whether or not our short-term goals will give us the far-reaching results we're looking for in the future. Let's take an example to illustrate. Let's say that young Heather argues with her mother every night about setting the table, which happens to be one of Heather's daily chores. The scenario usually begins with mom calling Heather away from some activity she's enjoying such as playing outside. Mom tells Heather she needs to come inside and begin setting the table so it will be ready in time for dinner. Heather says okay, but continues to linger outside and play with her friends. Mom calls her a second time, and Heather yells back that she needs a little more time to finish what she's playing. Mom reminds her she's already called her twice and says, "Come now!" Heather begins to argue, and perhaps even cry, saying that she hates to set the table, and why doesn't her brother have to do it instead of her. She laments that everyone has fewer chores than she does. Finally, mom has reached her limit and goes outside where she tells Heather in a raised voice to come inside right now. Heather continues to hesitate and now mom yells, "If you don't set the table right now, your grounded for the next month!" Heather comes in and goes into the dining room in a huff while muttering under her breath.
So what's been accomplished here? Heather is setting the table, but quite unhappily. Mom is feeling a combination of frustration and anger at having to go to such extremes to get Heather to do a simple chore. Heather hasn't really learned anything, and she's mostly focusing on how to get revenge on her mother (which she's doing already by pouting and making mom feel pretty miserable). The method of discipline in this case was a sort of dragged out nagging followed by a threat, which eventually did the trick but not in a way that left anyone feeling good. Further, the longer-term goal of building responsibility and accountability has not really been fostered.
When deciding on a method of discipline, we must consider first and foremost what the long-term results will be. Will the method we choose help our child build mutual respect, accountability, responsibility, self-discipline, resourcefulness, and cooperative problem-solving skills? In Heather's case, I think we can conclude that the answer to all of these would be no. We'll come back and revisit Heather's situation later on in the article, but for now the main idea to keep in mind is that techniques such as nagging, cajoling, issuing threats, or other punitive methods of discipline do not give us the long-term results we're looking for. Said more succinctly, punishment does not equal discipline. Punishment may very well take care of a problem in the short-term, but it generally works against our long-term goals. Now let's move on to consequences.
Natural and Logical Consequences
There are two types of consequences. These are natural consequences and logical consequences. Natural consequences are the easiest to employ because we don't have to formulate or develop them from scratch. They just occur as a natural result of some specific behavior. For example, let's say that your 13-year-old son needs his baseball cleats for practice everyday after school. In order to have them, he is supposed to put all of his practice gear (including the cleats) in his sports bag each night so it will be ready to take to school the next morning. Inevitably, he forgets the bag and around three o'clock in the afternoon, you get an urgent call from him requesting that you bring the cleats to school right away so he is not late to practice. You comply, as you have many times before, all the while complaining and threatening that this will be the last time. How to solve this situation? Quite easily as this one has a built-in natural consequence. You sit down with your son, discuss the problem, and come up with an agreed upon plan that requires him to not only pack the bag at night, but to put it out by the door so he will see it each morning as he leaves. If he forgets, you will not bring the cleats to school, even if he calls and begs you. He will have to go without. The consequence is simply a natural result of having forgotten in this case. Most likely there will be a number of natural consequences in this particular situation such as dealing with an angry coach, not being allowed to practice that day, and perhaps even being benched for a game. Your son will quickly learn that his forgetfulness causes him a great deal of distress with unwanted results, whereas more responsible and accountable behavior on his part will allow him to pursue his desires and goals.
Logical consequences are different than natural consequences in that they require the intervention of a parent. They must be developed and formulated, and then spelled out ahead of time. They are necessary when the situation in question doesn't offer a natural consequence, or the natural consequence is not appropriate. For example, the natural consequence of riding a bike in traffic would pose a danger to the child. A good example of logical consequences was offered in the last issue in the article, "Your Teen's Room." The logical consequence of not having the room clean by the appointed day and time (which was Saturday in this case), was to not be allowed to go out that night with friends as planned. In another example, a logical consequence of running up the phone bill without permission would be to pay the bill back by either contributing the money from a part-time job, or working it off around the house. In both of these situations, a consequence had to be formulated by the parent, and then enforced when the situation warranted. There is still more to the story, though. It's not only important to think of a logical consequence that fits the situation involved, but it is also necessary to understand the right methods for using the consequence.
Effectively Using Consequences
We've established that we want discipline to be a tool for teaching responsible and cooperative behavior that considers the rights of others, and develops self-discipline. We also want to preserve a positive self-image in the process by letting our children know that making mistakes is normal and acceptable, and we think they are capable of learning and making use of these opportunities to develop emotionally and mentally. It follows, then, that our method of discipline must involve mutual respect between parent and child, along with a focus on rational and logical problem solving. Jane Nelson translates these lofty goals into a practical and easy to remember scheme which she refers to as the "three Rs:"
Related – The consequence should be related to the behavior.
Respectful – Respectful behavior is required by both parent and child. Parents should not use blame, humiliation, or pain as a means of enforcing consequences.
Reasonable – Make the consequence reasonable. The idea is to teach, correct a mistake, make reparation, or get one's behavior under control. It is not necessary to make children undergo additional suffering. Keep in mind the goal.
Establishing a Consequence
Begin by planning ahead. One or both parents should sit down with the child and discuss the behavior in question. Be sure that there is a good understanding on everyone's part of what is expected and in most cases why. Why becomes more important to the older child, and especially the teen. During this discussion, encourage the child to voice her views, feelings, and suggestions. Once the expectations are agreed upon, complete the plan by coming up with a consequence in the case that the expectations are not met. Be sure the consequence is fair, related to the behavior in question if possible, and meets the criteria for your long-term goals, i.e., teaches responsibility, accountability, respect for others, etc. Let the child know that when she breaks the agreement, the consequence will be enforced automatically without any further discussion.
This last point is very important. The system is only as good as the parents' ability to follow through with the plan. Further, the phrase "enforced automatically" means exactly that. There should be no I told you so's, or you should have listened to me, or why do you do these things, etc. This is called piggybacking. Piggybacking adds a punitive twist to the consequence, thereby turning it into a punishment rather than a learning tool. You'll find that once you have issued a punitive statement, your child will turn her attention to feelings of anger and revenge toward you rather than being able to take in the lesson provided by the situation. The consequences speak for themselves. They allow the child to feel and experience the results of her own behavior without you driving it home.
Now let's return to our situation involving Heather, the little girl who doesn't want to set the table. There are several strategies that might be helpful here. First, mom should sit Heather down at a time other than dinner, when both are calm, and discuss the problem. She can ask Heather what part bothers her the most about the situation. It could be that Heather has a difficult time making transitions from one activity to another. She would be more cooperative if mom could let her know a half-hour before it was time to set the table that she would need to begin the process of breaking away from her current activity. Mom could warn her again at fifteen minutes, and again at five. Another possibility is to redirect Heather's behavior by giving her more responsibility in this situation. Maybe she would like to be in charge of decorating the table, or helping with some part of the meal, or helping to plan the menu. This allows Heather to feel some ownership in what needs to be accomplished, and allows her to make a contribution by using some of her talents and strengths. Finally, a consequence needs to be considered. Mom can make it clear that she will not tell Heather to set the table more than one time (outside of the time warnings she agrees to issue). If Heather reacts by arguing or becoming angry, she will need to go to her room to cool off until she can calm down, and then return to the dining room to set the table. If she misses setting the table altogether, then she will have to make up for causing her mother to have more work to do that night. In other words, if she makes mom's job harder by not doing her part, then she will have to make mom's job easier in some other way by doing more such as washing the dishes after dinner. Be sure that all the details are spelled out ahead of time, and that Heather verbally agrees to them. The agreement is very important because it gives the parent something to refer back to when children stray from the expectations.
What to Expect at First
Almost anytime a parent initiates a new system of discipline, children react with resistance. After all, they already have a system in place that invariably works quite well (for them that is). At the beginning, there is usually a testing period in which the child's behavior may worsen. If you have been a somewhat permissive parent, been inconsistent, and/or used a good deal of nagging and pleading to get your children to behave, you will most definitely experience a strong reaction to the new system. It is important to maintain both kindness and firmness throughout this period. If you hang in there long enough, you will find that your children become cooperative, respectful, and much easier to manage. Moreover, you will be giving your children the gifts of responsibility, accountability, and the capacity to solve problems, thereby setting up a future that is productive, happy, and rewarding.