Consequences Need to Matter!

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by Keith McCurdy

Quite often my conversations with parents focus on consequences.  This can be a tricky topic.  There are so many different strategies and techniques out there and most are focused on controlling a child’s behavior, which of course we really can’t do.  Yet parents are constantly searching for that perfect solution.  The problem is that most approaches or how most approaches are used, miss the point.  We are not attempting to control our children’s behavior- we are trying to teach.  Yes consequences are a form of punishment.  But  more than  that we also  want our children to learn from  them  so  that they may serve both as a deterrent and a tool to build respect for authority.

Time-outs are a great example of problematic consequences.  For years I have wanted to meet the person who suggested the whole notion of one minute per age of the child.  I have this approach mentioned to me on almost a daily basis by parents.  Most of who are tired of giving dozens of time-outs each day.  Let’s just say the whole idea is a little silly.  If you want to use a consequence as  a deterrent and to build respect for your authority, think  of this analogy… If  you want to stop a speeding train, you don’t throw twigs at it as it passes by…. You drop a tree in front of it.  There may be pain and anguish on the train, but there will be a clear understanding that it isn’t moving forward anymore.  This is how a consequence is to be used.  For this reason most time-outs are just ineffective.  Ok, maybe a three year old will be effectively disciplined by a three minute time-out, but an eight year old is not affected by an eight minute one.  “If I can do what I want and only sit in my room for eight minutes… cool”, as one boy told me recently.  Twigs were just bouncing off of his windshield.

Can you use time-outs?  Sure you can, but understand that they have a very short window of use based on age, and they need to be beefed up.  If a parent is bound and determined to use a time-out, here is what I recommend.   If you have a five year old, give them 20-30 minutes.  Use an egg timer and put it on top of the door frame.   If they come out early or mess with the timer, start it all over.  It may take two hours for them to finish the time-out, but they will know that their train has stopped.  Yes they will fuss and moan and cry… that means it is working… they don’t like it… they will typically want to avoid it.  For a consequence to be a good one, it has to hurt.

The notion of hurting a child does not mean physically or permanently.  It means that for a consequence to be effective, it has to really mess with their world.  It needs to shut them down.  The funniest thing about this is that in my twenty plus years of dealing with families, most parents know how to do this, they just don’t.   Either they are afraid they are being too harsh or they have bought into the whole notion of reasoning or being friendly with their kids.  Our parents and grandparents sure never had that issue.  They also never used time-outs.  They messed with our worlds and we were much better behaved and respected authority much more readily than today’s children.   Here are a few examples.

Johnny is complaining about being bored.   Today’s parent tries to come up with entertainment for Johnny or talk him into doing one of the many options they have mentioned that they believe he would have fun doing.  Yesterday’s parent would say “Clearly you have too much time on your hands.  If you can’t find something to do, here is a list of jobs to do around the house.”  Sally is fussing and messing with her brother all day.   Today’s parent would have a discussion about loving your siblings and tell her she has lost TV for the night if she continues.  Yesterday’s parent would say “We don’t treat people like that” and have her go to bed after dinner for the week.  Billy hits a little girl in the neighborhood.  Today’s parent has a conversation about appropriate and inappropriate physical contact and respecting personal space followed by anger management classes.  Yesterday’s parent would drop a tree.

A specific strategy or approach is not the key.  The key is to make a point very clearly.  To do that, consequences need to matter.  Take a look at your consequences and see if they really matter.  Remember, consequences should not fit the crime… they should be bigger.