Last month we discussed the benefit of logical consequences over punishment, and how (and why) to choose logical consequences. But it’s important to note that even if we follow all those guidelines and give a perfect logical consequence, it’s punishment if the child perceives it as such. It’ll have the same results to their attitude, self-concept, and self-esteem as punishment. We can attempt to influence how they see it by presenting it appropriately, but they have ultimate control over their interpretation. This is one reason to try to use other things before using logical consequences.
When we see a misbehavior we often feel driven to stop it immediately. It’s why yelling is first line of defense for many parents. But our goal is twofold: stop the behavior and keep it from recurring. Remember that there is always some belief, some unmet need, driving every behavior. The better you can understand what that is, the more effectively you can connect with your child in a way that treats the origin of the problem and strengthens the relationship, making them more likely to not engage in this misbehavior again. Here are some questions you might ask yourself to help you decide how to handle a situation:
- What developmental issue(s) might this behavior be about (consider Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages)? Is this behavior – though troubling – normal or even adaptive? This doesn’t mean you don’t want to improve it but you will approach it with a very different attitude if you think it is normal or even good (sassy = assertive).
- What need is being met with this behavior (consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs)? Could you perhaps even remember what it was like to be a kid with this particular need? This will help hugely with compassion and gentleness.
- Is it clear to the child what is expected of them in this situation?
(Consider discussing the next three with your child after they’ve calmed down.)
- What rule is being broken?
- What problem is the behavior creating?
- What will help to solve the problem?
This last one is so important. Sometimes we forget about good old-fashioned problem solving if we’re in the habit of giving consequences. If a misbehavior is repeated frequently that is a strong sign that we need to problem-solve, which you can do as a team, with your child. Because chances are your child is not a little beast. Chances are your child wants life to go pretty smoothly, just like you do. It’s likely that he just doesn’t have the skills necessary to logically and creatively solve the problem.
Also, ask yourself if you even have to address this. Maybe natural consequences will be the teacher so you don’t have to be. Natural consequences are those that inevitably happen as a result of one’s choice. They are not administered by you. For instance, if your child refuses to wear a coat in the winter, he will be cold. If you see behavior at home that you anticipate will be a problem elsewhere, help your child understand and anticipate natural consequences as a disincentive to continue it (hitting a peer might result in the peer not wanting to play with you at recess). You’ll often have a choice to make about whether or not to use natural consequences. You definitely don’t want to when the behavior you’re trying to eliminate is dangerous, like running into the road without looking. But how about not tying shoes? A slightly skinned knee might be a good teaching tool but broken teeth would be overkill. You also want to avoid natural consequences as the main teacher when they are so far in the future that your child won’t connect it to the behavior. And obviously, don’t use natural consequences when they negatively affect someone other than your child.
Another reason to use something other than consequences is because experiencing (often unpleasant) consequences is not always necessary or even the best way to learn. Remember that a person does not need to suffer in order to learn. This sounds obvious but even the most loving parent might feel irked when they are fed up with a misbehavior and impose a consequence… and their child enjoys it. Remember your goals: stop the behavior and keep it from recurring. Rewards for not doing the misbehavior can often be much more effective than negative consequences (for example, if a young child is waking you at the crack of dawn, giving a small reward (praise is enough for some children) each time he stays in his room until a certain hour might get better results than taking away a favorite toy every time he doesn’t). Consider using emotion-coaching skills (empathizing, connecting, setting limits on inappropriate expression of emotion, and problem-solving with them). This is often more effective than giving consequences because it addresses the misbehavior while strengthening the relationship and supporting the child’s self-esteem. Prevention is another important area that is easy to overlook – structuring things so that the misbehavior can’t be done in the future (usually by setting routines and teaching rules. For example, if the misbehavior is coloring on the wall, a rule for the future might be that you only get to hold a crayon if you’re seated at the table).
One last reason to use something other than a logical consequence – sometimes you just can’t think of one! When that happens it could be a sign that a logical consequence isn’t the way to go. Since we often find ourselves wearing the disciplinarian hat far more than we want to anyway, we might as well try one of the other techniques. Who knows? Maybe we’ll find a result of giving fewer consequences is that our child needs them less, and we can wear the fun hat more often.