Q: I have a 9 year-old and a 16 year-old and with both I sometimes struggle with figuring out appropriate punishments. My husband thinks mine are too severe and my teenager recently told me that what I came up with yesterday “didn’t make sense.” And I agreed with her! But I didn’t know what else to do. How do you figure out a good consequence?

A: That’s a great question. First, let’s differentiate between punishment and logical consequences. Punishment uses shame to enforce compliance to the rules and create discomfort. It results in the child feeling not only ashamed but also discouraged, resentful, and angry. It’s personal and you are the bad guy. Punishment teaches avoidance of the punisher and in the face of frequent punishment children tend to become skillful in the art of deception and evasion. If they do comply to avoid punishment it is done out of fear and with resentment. Punishment often only works in the short-term and becomes ineffective as they learn to tolerate that discomfort, at which point you are forced to up the ante. We often punish as a reaction rather than a response. Logical consequences allow the child to maintain their dignity and therefore be more capable of using the situation as a learning experience where they understand how and why to make a better choice next time. Logical consequences strengthen the child’s self-respect and your relationship with them and promote responsibility and a positive self-concept. They teach lessons so they work better long-term. They are logical, not personal, and you are a neutral party (and in the best circumstances, a teammate).

Simple in theory but not in practice! What parent hasn’t struggled with figuring out consequences from time to time? It’s not always easy to dole out a logical consequence right when you need to. In the moment we might be so annoyed or scared or frustrated that we just aren’t able to come up with something appropriate and instead give an emotion-based consequence that is ineffective and maybe even hurts the relationship or our child’s self-esteem. So practice taking a breather. Literally. Leave the room and take some slow belly breaths. For a few minutes keep your mind on your breathing and off the situation. Then try some self-talk focused on compassion and empathy for your child so you can return to the discussion in a more reasonable state of mind. Respond to the misbehavior only after calming down, empathizing, and brainstorming a logical consequence if you have to. There are several things I’d recommend trying before logical consequences, and we’ll discuss them in next month’s article. Right now we’ll address your question about logical consequences.

Logical consequences are ones picked by you (or everyone in a family meeting) and enforced by you. Whenever possible they are decided in advance (saves you from having to think on the fly!). They are respectful to the child – stated kindly and firmly, avoiding judgment and shame; relevant to the behavior (a common one is removing the privilege that was misused); and reasonable – proportionate to the crime and truly do-able. If any one of these three factors aren’t present it’s not logical consequences, it’s punishment.

It can be hard to be respectful while we’re disciplining but this is so important. Not only do we want to preserve our child’s self-esteem but we want to strengthen our relationship with them which we can actually do while setting limits, if we’re respectful. Also, we are always modeling for our children so when we treat them with disrespect because they made a poor choice or because we are feeling something intense, it teaches them to treat others that way when the tables are turned. Being respectful means using respectful words and a calm and kind or neutral tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. Again, much easier if you have done the prep work of empathizing.

Parents often struggle with the “relevant to the misbehavior” aspect of logical consequences but with practice it gets easier. Sometimes it’s as obvious as losing the misused toy or abused privilege for the rest of the day. But what happens when your kid misses the school bus by purposefully dawdling while tying his shoes? Driving him to school and having him do extra chores to pay for the gas might be an appropriate consequence. Sometimes you have to get creative to keep it related. Resist the urge to simply take away his favorite thing if it had nothing to do with the misbehavior.

Like the others, “reasonable,” will be easier to achieve when you’re calm. It can be tempting to take away your teen’s phone for the rest of the year when she used it to text her boyfriend during class again. But that sets you up for a long time of having to enforce this consequence and deal with whining and inconvenience and maybe feeling guilty, and you might cave. If you do, your child learns your consequences are flimsy and can be changed with enough whining. If you don’t, your child will think of you as unfair (and after you’ve calmed down and gotten some perspective you might agree!). Also, if your consequences are so big that your child feels hopeless about enduring them you will be creating more problems in attitude and behavior than you are solving. Make sure your consequences are reasonable before you lay down the law.

Be consistent with logical consequences so you don’t accidentally reinforce the problem behavior by allowing them to “get away with it” intermittently (a powerful motivator for some kids). Along those lines, follow through with the consequence after you’ve given fair warning – you don’t want to become known for issuing empty threats. Whenever possible, before giving a logical consequence tell your child what will happen if they choose to misbehave.: “If you choose to throw sand at kids at the park we will leave and come back home.” That way the child is fully informed and not only gets to practice making choices but also you won’t have to defend yourself against accusations that they didn’t know what would happen and you’re not being fair (and probably wonder yourself). Though it might be much easier to punish rather than use logical consequences, taking the time to do the latter is more likely to result in a good relationship with a child who has a good sense of responsibility and desire to do what’s right.

Next month: Things to Try Before Using Logical Consequences


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