By: Joe Newman
Imagine a young mother who tells her three-year-old son Nathan, “If you behave and listen to Mommy, then you can go to the movies with Daddy tonight.” But the boy keeps acting out, throwing things and not listening to his mother. Each time he misbehaves his mother tells him, “Nathan, unless you start behaving you’re not going to the movies with Daddy.” After the fifteenth time telling him she finally says, “That’s it, I’ve had enough. You are not going to the movies with Daddy tonight.” A three-year-old experiences a verbal warning as no real consequence so the series of events looks, to him, like this:
Action = no effect, …action = no effect, …action = no effect
…Until the 15th time = No going to the movies with Daddy!
The conclusion that three-year-old Nathan reaches is, “Most of the time there is no consequence for not listening to Mommy.” And, “Sometimes (one time in fifteen) Mommy gets mad and takes away something I like.”
Make Consequences Short and Immediate
Children are observing what’s happening around them and trying to draw conclusions about how things work and the meanings of words. If fourteen out of every fifteen times a parent says “No throwing your toys,” or “Hitting your brother is not okay,” there is no consequence paired with the rule. The child learns that most of the time the rule isn’t true. If your two-year-old drops the toy and goes away crying every time your four-year-old hits him and you give no other consequence than telling him that hitting his brother is “not okay,” what he’s learning is that your words are not true. Hitting his brother is okay because when he does it, his brother drops the toy and goes away which is what he wants.
Most parents like to give children the benefit of the doubt each time they have a problem behavior. While this can be fine for behaviors that are sporadic, this well-intentioned approach can cause a breakdown in motivation and communication when done in response to problem behaviors that occur regularly.
Typically, a parent gives many chances before giving a consequence. But each time an adult gives another chance instead of a consequence the adult’s feelings of goodwill slowly fade and resentment and disappointment start to take their place. By the time the adult actually gives a consequence, it’s usually paired with all the negative emotions that come with feeling disregarded and taken advantage of.
In order to do this effectively parents and teachers need to become more comfortable with conflict. Rather than avoiding conflict until the problem becomes so big they’re upset and likely to give a big consequence, parents would do better to step into conflict early when their heads are cool and the consequence can be small and reasonable.
For older children start thinking about giving consequences that are very short and easy for them to do instead of waiting and giving consequences that are big and will be more difficult to enforce.
– Instead of taking away the cell phone for an indefinite time, take the cell phone for 1, 2, 5 or 24 hours.
– Instead of no more video/TV time today how about no video/TV for 10 minutes.
– Instead of no going out with your friends after school, try letting them go out after they’ve finished an hour or two of homework or chores.
– Ask them what they are willing to do in exchange for getting special privileges or resources.
The idea is to create consequences that allow your children to get a fresh start as often as possible. This allows your children to feel more in control over the causes and effects instead of consequences that feel punitive and judgmental.
For younger children the most effective immediate consequence is the short time out. A short time out is a simple means of assuring that problem behaviors are not reinforced or rewarded. A short time out can be given in a classroom, the home, on a hike, or while out shopping.
When you stop a child and give her a short time out you’re assuring her that the most immediate effect the child experiences as a result of her behavior is boredom. You effectively stop any reward or stimulation that the child is getting from the inappropriate behavior and replace it with a short period of nothing to do.
Short, immediate consequences also make it easier for your child to begin to manage his own behaviors. It’s easier for children to control themselves when dealing with a one or two-minute time out than it is for them to deal with a long time out or a big consequence. Additionally, it gives your child a better opportunity to exercise control over those actions that are leading to larger consequences.