My friend Trisha's eyes filled with tears. Over the summer, she had discovered that her 15-year-old son, Skip, was experimenting with alcohol and cigarettes. She had tried talking to him, grounding him, and forbidding him to go out with a certain group of friends, but those restrictions weren't making much of an impact on him.
"What's the most important thing to Skip?" I asked. "Football," she answered without hesitation. Then I had a brainstorm. "Doesn't Skip have to sign a contract with the football coach that says he will not drink or smoke or use drugs while he's on the football team? And don't you, as parents, have to sign it, too?" Trisha nodded. "What about telling him that if he drinks or smokes, you'll inform his coach?" Trisha was silent. "I'm not quite sure I could turn him in," she said. "He'd be kicked off the team. I know I should, but I don't know if I could."
Allowing our children to experience the consequences of their actions is one of the hardest decisions parents make. But while every parent has an arsenal of discipline techniques to draw from, experts agree that allowing logical, age-appropriate consequences can solve most disciplinary problems.
"For everything we do in life, there are consequences," writes child psychiatrist Dale M. Jacobs, in Zip Your Lips (Element). "If we don't pay the electric bill, our lights will be turned off. If we do a job poorly, or don't show up, we may be fired. Parents need to allow children to experience the consequences of their choices in order to learn responsibility."
For Skip, being kicked off the team may teach him more than his mom's words or actions. Not only will Skip learn that his decision to smoke and drink has negative results, he will see that his parents are fully committed to dealing with him seriously. The next time he's tempted to go against their wishes, he'll know that doing so will result in more negative consequences.
It's important to point out that consequences are not the same as punishment. By grounding and restricting Skip, Trisha was trying to punish him. But punishment deals with past misdeeds, not future behavior. Biblically, the word punishment is not even tied to parenting. Discipline is the word the Bible attaches to good parenting; its definition is to correct behavior and instruct for the future.
The concept of logical consequences also mirrors how God parents us. In essence, it is a respect for an individual's free will, rather than an attempt to control another person. Best-selling author Philip Yancey calls this aspect of God "the miracle of restraint." In The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan) he writes, "I never sense Jesus twisting a person's arm. Rather, he stated the consequences of a choice, then threw the decision back to the other party." After the Fall, God's discipline of Adam and Eve is based on the consequences of their actions.
Jay Kesler, author of Emotionally Healthy Teenagers (Word), applies this aspect of God to parenting when he writes, "In all areas of God's creation, He allows His creatures to mature and function on their own. To participate with God in His creation we must, therefore, prepare our children for independence, for that is consistent with His plan. In a sense, we are carrying out His will and His intentions when we do so."
Using consequences with children is an effective way to shape their behavior. But it takes some thought to make consequences work.
Get Smart About Child Development
For consequences to mean something to your children, you need to know what your child can and can't understand. Education consultant Kim Salch says, "If you're feeling frustrated about an unwanted behavior, be sure that your expectations are age-appropriate." You can read about child development, observe other kids, ask seasoned parents for advice, or find a mentor to figure out what your child is ready for. Look for patterns in your child's behavior. What triggers the problem? Hunger? Fatigue? Solve the problem and you may change the behavior.
Looking back, I regret that I sometimes handled situations as behavioral rather than developmental. When my then-4-year-old suddenly hated going to sleep, I reacted to these nighttime upsets with my own upset rather than realizing it was part of a stage. She grew out of that stage, but I still feel sorry that I didn't think of another approach, such as a longer bedtime story or extra snuggling. I expected too much, too soon.
Make Sure the Time Is Right
While it might seem like young children should be protected from the results of their mistakes, experts say that you can use consequences sooner than you might expect. Salch says, "Learning about an environment begins when a baby becomes mobile. Mom teaches a crawling baby what 'hot' means by touching the dishwasher after the dry cycle, when it's warm but not so hot that it could burn a little finger. By the time he's walking, he won't touch a hot stovetop. It's a process that evolves as a child grows: as behaviors become evident, so do consequences."
With toddlers and preschoolers, experienced teacher Carol Grieb uses everyday situations to show children the results of their behavior. "When a child grabs something from another child and a scuffle results, I will say, 'Look! See what happens when you don't ask for the toy?'"
The sooner you practice allowing your child to experience logical consequences, the better for all. When my friend Gail's 3-year-old daughter insisted on wearing pajamas to church, Gail decided to let her wear them. "I've read about the need for 3-year-olds to assert their independence, so I thought, why not? If it's that important to her, I can swallow my pride for one Sunday." After one week, Gail's daughter decided it wasn't that much fun to wear pajamas to church after all. Choices are powerful.
Set Clear Expectations
For children to learn from consequences, parents need to make sure children know exactly what behaviors are acceptable and what the results will be for misbehavior. Provide simple, straightforward expectations so that even a young child can understand. Always keep in mind that what's clear to you may not be clear to your kids. Don't leave any questions in their minds as to how you'll react.
My friend Nancy thinks about consequences for her child's behavior ahead of time so she's prepared with the appropriate response when she needs it. She avoids head-on conflicts with her kids by giving them a lot of choices. She might say, "Patrick, I need you to pick up your toys before dinner. You can do it now or after you finish your game. If they're not picked up by dinner, then they'll be put away for a few days. It's up to you." Nancy also makes deals with her kids. Her children get what they want after they fulfill their responsibilities. "Yes, you can watch TV when your homework is done." "You can use the phone when your room is cleaned up." Obligations come first.
Make Logical Connections
The whole idea behind logical consequences is that the consequence is a clear, natural result of the behavior. In most cases, you won't have to work too hard to figure out the logical consequence of your child's behavior.
One 10-year-old I know began to surprise her mom, Kerry, with a newly acquired fondness for "back talk." Kerry noticed a pattern of sass each time Alison played with a certain friend. In a calm, respectful way, Kerry explained that sarcasm and rudeness were unacceptable in their home. She said that Alison would not be allowed to invite this playmate over until she could learn to control her own mouth. Kerry didn't ban or blame this friend. She gave Alison the responsibility to watch her attitude or experience the consequences.
Don't Be a Rescuer
Naturally, parents want to protect their children from unhappiness. But when we start excusing them from their homework, driving to drop things off at school, or paying their speeding tickets, we aren't doing them any favors, especially as they prepare to head out into the real world, where they'll have to pay a higher price for their mistakes.
One mom I know finally realized she was going to have to let her kids face the consequences of their forgetfulness, be it a hungry tummy or detention for a missed assignment. When she stopped rescuing them and refused to deliver their lunches and assignments, they became more organized and responsible. I give my kids one "grace delivery" of a forgotten lunch or homework per quarter. I want them to realize that occasional mistakes are okay, and helping each other is part of being in a family, but that they are old enough to take care of these things.
Be Willing to Get Tough
We've always told our kids that if we can trust them in small things, then we'll be able to trust them in big things. A few months ago, I caught my teenage son in a lie. A big lie. There was no doubt that he was guilty; I had concrete evidence. After discussing the issue with my husband, we decided to withhold our son's driver's license for six months, even though he was prepared to take the test and eager for his license. We explained that his lie was a violation of our trust, and as a result, we couldn't trust him with our car, at least not yet.
This was a painful experience for all of us, but holding back his driving freedom was the right consequence, and the impact on him has been powerful. In fact, I've seen a great deal of maturing in him because of this consequence. He knows we mean what we say, and he knows our expectations of trust. So promises Proverbs 29:17: "Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul." Independence and responsibility go hand in hand. You can't give one without the other.
Use Positive Consequences, Too
Consequences don't have to be negative. Research has shown that people learn faster when they are rewarded for their behavior than when the outcome is unpleasant. When my friend Lisa felt exasperated with her 5-year-old daughter's whining, she used positive consequences. She told Sara that if she could get through three mornings in a row without whining, she would get her favorite dinner. It worked! Figure out what privileges motivate your kids and use them to reinforce good choices.
Kids never stop making mistakes—old ones, new ones, messy ones, dangerous ones, funny ones, and hurtful ones. They have to learn that it's natural to make mistakes, but there are consequences to be paid. There's no pat formula for raising healthy and balanced kids, but if they grow up with an awareness of consequences for their behavior, with freedom to make choices and learn from them, they'll have a solid foundation to stand on.
Suzanne Woods Fisher is a member of the CPT Advisory Board and the mother of four. She lives in California.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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January/February 2002, Vol. 14, No. 3, Page 26