Using consequences to teach kids a lesson does teach them a lesson. The lesson is that they can’t come to us or count on us when they make a mistake or mess up.
Let’s fast forward in time a bit and talk teenagers. My friend, Holly, and I were talking the other day about teenagers. She said when she was a teenager, she knew that she could always call her uncle if she ever found herself without a safe ride or was in situation that she needed to find her way out of.
She said “It felt so good knowing that I had my uncle in my back pocket and I could call him whenever I needed some help.”
I asked, “Wouldn’t it have felt good if you had known your parents were there for you when you needed help?”
She thought for a minute and said “Yeah, that would have felt really good.”
Do you want to be the person your child turns to when they need help, now or in the future?
If you do, that starts now. It starts with thinking about the kind of consequences you give your kids and what lesson that teaches them.
Note: In this post I am using the word ‘consequence’ to mean the punitive action a parent takes when a child misbehaves. Sometimes they are called “logical consequences.” Consequences, in this context, are intended by the parent to make a child feel bad as part of the attempt to teach a lesson.
I am NOT talking about ‘natural’ consequences that happen naturally with no involvement from the parent. A child breaks a toy in anger. Natural consequence: the toy is broken and they can’t play with it anymore. Example of a ‘consequence’ from a parent: the rest of the toys are taken away, the child gets a ‘time-out.’
Most parents think hard to choose a consequence when a child misbehaves. That’s what we are told to do, right? Your child hits their brother or draws with marker on the couch? Maybe they get consequence of no screen time or a perhaps a timeout. We have to ask ourselves what the ‘consequence’ actually teach our child (and also how they actually help our child to do better next time!)
What do consequences teach your child?
:: They teach your child not about what their actions have on others, but to care more about what happens to *them* when they hurt someone.
:: They don’t help you get to the root cause of the bad behaviour. You don’t address WHY the hitting happened, or get closer to how to prevent it next time.
:: Your child misses out on the chance to make things better. Cleaning the couch is more useful, constructive and life-changing than missing a day of screen time. Your child learns, “When we mess up, we always try to make things right.”
:: Consequences also teach your child to lie to avoid a punishment. Kids will lie to avoid a consequence even when it’s really obvious- like they are standing there with chocolate crumbs on their face but insisting they didn’t eat a cookie.
The biggest lesson of consequences? They teach your child that you are not there to help them when they mess up. You will only try to make them feel bad about it. Your child learns to lie and avoids coming to you with the truth.
If you want your child to come to you when they mess up, you have to teach them that you will understand and you will help them fix it.
Today, a bit of marker on the couch is not really a huge problem. But when your child is a teenager there will be life-and-death situations that they might need help with, such as a safe ride home, experimenting with drugs or alcohol, teen pregnancy or STDs (perish the thought of any of this!)
It doesn’t mean that you will never be upset with your child (or future teenager!) Of course you will be upset if they hit their brother, write on the couch, or are at a party they weren’t meant to go to. We have to make sure we can calm ourselves down enough and not act when we are angry. When we are calm, we can more clearly see what needs to happen to fix things.
We want our child, whether they are 4 or 14, to know that no matter what they’ve done, we are here to help them.
We will help them fix it.
We will be their safety net.
We will help them out of whatever jam they are in: whether it’s figuring out a way to clean the marker off the couch, figuring out a way to work things out with their brother, or figuring out a way to get home from a party they weren’t even supposed to go to.
‘Fixing it’ might mean helping their brother feel better, or winning back your trust. The point is that a child who knows you are there to HELP not to inflict pain will come to you.
“My parents have my back.” Isn’t this what we all wanted from our parents? And what we hope our children know about us?
So instead of figuring out what the consequence for a transgression should be, regulate your own big feelings and then figure out a way to help your child clean up the mess. Teach your child you are there, no matter what.
Do you need some help regulating your reaction so you can think BEFORE you give a consequence? Sign up below for my *free* ‘How To Stop Yelling At Your Kids” e-course.
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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 11, 14, and 18). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah is an API certified parenting educator and is certified by Dr. Laura Markham as an Aha! Peaceful Parenting Coach. Find her at sarahrosensweet.com