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Lesson 8
Consequences as the Last Resort

Many professionals in child development take a negative view of punishment. Punishment, some say, is excessive control that humiliates children. According to this point of view, punishment frightens children and makes them angry. We should, of course, be concerned about punishment. Punishment can become abusive. Parents who punish often or severely create more problems than they solve. A relationship based primarily on punishment undermines children's respect for authority. Continued punishment may gain children's compliance at the cost of their self-worth.

Reasonable consequences, however, can be part of an effective discipline strategy. Reasonable consequences are responses to deliberate wrongdoing. Such consequences do not have to occur frequently, nor do they have to be severe. While guidance provides the tools for teaching children important values and skills, reasonable consequences reduce the frequency of a misbehavior.

To work, consequences must be swift and firm, unpleasant but not excessive. Let's say, for example, a 4-year-old deliberately pinches her baby brother on his face. The baby begins crying. Big sister has been warned about pinching before and knows she has done something wrong. What will mother do?

Mother decides she has talked enough. Now she wants to link an unpleasant consequence with the unacceptable behavior. She has arrived at the point where she has to firmly but fairly enforce a reasonable limit. She tells the child that because she pinched her brother she will have to take a time out in a kitchen chair. She will have to sit there for 4 minutes, away from family activities, until a buzzer on the stove goes off. Mother neither likes the idea of punishment nor enjoys the child's tears that follow. In order to emphasize her clear disapproval, she has to respond to the child's deliberate misbehavior with an unpleasant but reasonable consequence.

Consequences tell a child what not to do. Consequences alone, however, cannot teach children the values and skills that are important for self-worth, problem solving, and self-control. Consequences without prevention is cruel, consequences without guidance will be ineffective. The core of effective discipline is guidance. Teaching children what is right and what is wrong, helping them learn how to take responsibility for their actions and how to relate positively with others are the fundamental goals of responsive discipline.

In each of the three tool sets (Prevention, Guidance, Consequences), tools are organized into three levels of difficulty and challenge:


Note the color symbol associate with each level. This division represents how difficult it might be, in general, to actually use the tool effectively. Of course, a lot depends on the child and the experience of the parent. Ages given for each tool are approximations only. Study the basic tools first. As you become more comfortable with these tools, return to these pages and focus on those at an intermediate level, and finally, advanced. Do not try to learn all of these tools at one time.

Clicking on the tool will take you to a description of that tool and at least one example of its use.

[intermediate] Expect restitution (6-18 years)
[basic] Enforce a time out (3-5 years)
[basic] Introduce logical consequences (all ages)
[intermediate] Allow natural consequences (all ages)
[advanced] Express strong disappointment (all ages)
[advanced] Ground the child (6-18 years)

Unpleasant consequences may be necessary if all efforts to use prevention and guidance fail to change a child's repeated acts of misbehavior. They will be effective only if the following guidelines are met.

Some thoughts about spanking.

[bullet]The consequences must occur close in time to the misbehavior.

Never tell a child, Just wait until your father gets home! Delayed consequences, especially with younger children, are confusing. Children are more likely to associate the delayed consequence with the parent rather than the misbehavior that occurred earlier. Immediate responses that occur soon after misbehavior are more effective.

[bullet]Children must be able to differentiate between right and wrong.

Children cannot learn from consequences if they do not know that what they did was wrong. If there is no remorse, the parent's decision to use consequences will cause only anger or confusion in a child. Before they respond, parents should ask themselves, Is my child aware that he has done something wrong and does my child feel sorry?

[bullet]Children must realize that the unpleasant consequence is the result of their own deliberate misbehavior.

Children must conclude that they, not their parents, are responsible for their own unhappiness. The cause of their unpleasantness is the choice they made, not parental anger or harassment. They must direct their frustration toward their own choice to misbehave. Oh, no. I never should have done that. Now look at what's happened. For consequences to work, children must recognize they have chosen to do something wrong. An acceptance of responsibility can then be transformed into commitment to change.

Using consequences is an unpredictable, difficult teaching strategy. If they fail to regret their actions, children will direct their anger toward those who inflict the punishment. Instead of making commitment to change, children who are not sorry will learn to avoid punishment by hiding their misbehavior from authority figures. If parents persistently exaggerate the unpleasant consequences of misbehavior, children may feel excessive guilt. In both cases, lowered self-esteem will actually increase the likelihood of continued misbehavior. Children who are mistreated may come to think of themselves as bad. Children who believe they are bad will act bad.

[bullet]Consequences must be consistent.

If a parent tells a 4-year-old child, If you keep throwing your food at the table you will have to go to your room, the parent must send the child to his room the moment he throws his food again. If the child throws his food tomorrow or the day after, the same result must occur. Inconsistent consequences confuse and frightens children. They cannot predict what their parents will do.

[bullet]Make sure the consequences make sense and are not more severe than the misbehavior.

Some threats are unreasonable. Consider the following statements:

If you don't finish your dinner you can't go to grandma's house tomorrow!
That's it! You took the car without my permission. Now you can't drive the car for a year!

Do these consequences make sense? Does the punishment fit the offense? If they follow through with these threats, parents would be over reacting. If they fail to respond, parents would lose their children's respect.

[bullet]Respond in private.

Embarrassing a child in front of others creates unnecessary anger and undermines dignity and self-esteem.

[bullet]Use consequences rarely.

Frequent use of consequences is ineffective because children gradually adapt or adjust to a certain intensity of punishment. Over time, parents who use consequences frequently will have to become more and more severe to achieve the same level of influence. Consequences can then escalate out of control, to the point that a child's fear and anger overwhelm any potential for learning.

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Contact us/Help Revised: February 12 , 2003

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