Behavior and Consequences

A toddler sits in timeout but faces the camera.

Do you have a grip on reality? Here's a quiz to find out.

Bob drives his bright red sports car 90 miles per hour on the interstate and is pulled over by a state trooper. The trooper gives Bob a:

  • friendly greeting
  • cookie
  • speeding ticket

Susan prefers sleeping late to showing up at work on time. After arriving at the office two to three hours late for two weeks in a row, Susan's boss tells her to:

  • get to bed a little earlier
  • take some vacation time to rest up
  • look for another job

As a result of their choices, Bob and Susan will both experience unpleasant consequences. We can only hope they'll learn from their experiences, prompting Bob to become a safer driver and Susan to become a more responsible employee.

Training for the real world

The effective use of consequences can be a powerful parenting tool. When our children break a rule or fail to act responsibly, we can implement a consequence or allow the natural outcome of their behavior to take effect. Over time, these results act as a teacher, helping our kids to learn how things operate in the real world.

Unfortunately, far too many parents short-circuit this process, either failing to implement appropriate consequences or bailing their kids out — shielding them from the slightest discomfort. These parents believe they are expressing love by sparing their children from consequences; in reality, they are setting up their kids for frustration and failure later in life.

The book of Proverbs reminds us that God designed the world to function in specific ways. Our actions have ramifications, and more often than not, we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7). Our kids benefit when they learn that life is made up of these cause-and-effect relationships — even though the effects they experience may sometimes be unpleasant.

If a toddler touches a hot stove, he gets burned — that is a natural consequence. When a child's actions do not lead to an obvious result, however, a parent can still employ a consequence that is logically connected to the behavior. For example, a child is instructed to put away his toy train and doesn't follow through; a logical consequence would be that he is not allowed to play with his train the next day.

What it looks like

Consequences can be both positive and negative. Parents can use positive consequences when they want to encourage a good behavior and negative consequences when they want to discourage a bad behavior.

In order for consequences to work, they need to be immediate. Kids have short attention spans. You can increase the immediacy of a consequence by using tokens or a point system. Immediately award your child points or tokens for positive behavior and deduct them for negative behavior. These can then be cashed in for special privileges or inexpensive rewards at a later time.

You'll also need to be consistent with consequences, or your child will quickly learn that you don't mean what you say. That's why it's crucial to follow through with a promised outcome even when you're tired.

Finally, consequences need to be powerful. If a positive or negative consequence doesn't matter to your child, it won't change her behavior. For example, earning points toward a new outfit for her doll may be a powerful motivator for a 7-year-old girl, but she may not care about that a year from now.

As you learn to use consequences effectively — instead of nagging, yelling or making threats — you'll find that interactions with your kids will improve. Your children will clearly understand what's expected of them, and you'll feel more confident in your role as a parent. Of course, you should always administer consequences in the context of a warm, supportive relationship.

By the way, if you chose the third answer for both questions on the quiz, congratulations — you understand the reality of consequences. Now you can use that precious wisdom to help your kids mature into responsible adults who make good choices — and who keep their jobs and avoid speeding tickets.

This article first appeared in the November, 2008 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright © 2008 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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