In our previous article we began to distinguish between punishment and consequence. We defined punishment as arbitrary, following no pattern and not providing the child with a clear learning experience. We explained that although punishment can put a stop to a behavior, it does not effectively teach a child to make good choices (which is how we will define “responsibility” henceforth). Punishment can (and should) be used effectively when a child is demonstrating dangerous or destructive behavior which needs to be stopped immediately. However, just like we understand that antibiotics do not improve one’s immune system yet at times they are vital toward saving one’s life, punishment too, is not a tool which develops emotional health.
Before we discuss how to effectively use consequences to develop our children’s emotional health, it behooves us to identify for whom and in which instances they pertain.
Consequences are not a means of forcing a child to do that which he is incapable of doing. Imagine a Rebbe threatening a second-grader that he will lose time off his recess if he can’t read a line of Gemarah. It is simply beyond his grasp. In order for consequences to be used as a conduit for developing responsibility we need to first ensure that our demands are feasible and reasonable for each child at his level. Interestingly, it is common that children who exhibit Oppositional Defiance Disorder are simply defending themselves from adults whose expectations are beyond their capabilities due to a deficit in a given area. Having been punished so many times for not meeting the expectation or even having attempted and failed, they develop an attitude of “I don’t care if you punish me!” Can we blame them? Everyone has got an ego to protect and if they have proven themselves as failures they may as well be proud of it.
The following will address a specific parenting skill which can help strengthen parental authority while providing children with a sense of security, responsibility, success and independence. It is directed to helping:
- A typical child who is not posing severe behavioral challenges
- A child whose parents recognize their parenting style as distinctly passive and are observing behavioral challenges with which they feel taken advantage of or manipulated and,
- A child who often says “No” and gets away with it
When a child’s behaviors are so challenging that they cause significant conflict or cannot be controlled without force, his parents should contact a competent mental-health professional for a full assessment and evaluation. The child may be suffering from a range of issues including learning or language deficits, ADHD, abuse/neglect or a range of other issues. If the child is suffering academically he should obtain a full learning evaluation. The importance of a full social, emotional and learning evaluation cannot be underscored, and there are many resources that can be obtained at low or no-cost through the Board of Education or other services. As a school counselor, I have observed first-hand the importance of catching these issues at a young age and the potential repercussions in a child’s long-term emotional development. It is well known that many behavior problems at schools stem from learning and language deficits. In fact, studies over the years have indicated that undiagnosed learning disabilities are the leading cause for at-risk behaviors in adolescents.
That said using consequences to train children to make good choices is most effective when it is:
- Rule-based (predictable)
- Forewarned (whether predictable or not)
- Warned in a calm manner
- Well defined and clear-cut
And when the consequences are:
- Related (to the incident) when possible
- Carried out calmly
Rule based: Behaviors which are common should have rules. The rule should be stated calmly together with the reasonable, respectful and related (RRR) consequence. When the child breaches the rule, the consequence should be carried out consistently, until the child learns that his actions produce a specific result. That is how we train children to be responsible. Here’s how it looks:
Parent: “From now on, you need to put your bike in the garage each night in order to ride it again tomorrow. If you do not put it away you will have to lose out on riding your bike for one day.”
Child: “But Maaaa!”
By now if you’ve been reading my articles you should know how to respond. Identify the emotion and validate it! Then, invite a problem-solving discussion and collaborate with the child.
Parent: “That’s pretty distressing, isn’t it?”
Child: “Yeah, why do I have to put away my bike? It’s not fair!”
Parent: “Well, you are old enough to be responsible for your own bike and there is no reason that I have to put it away for you. Is that too hard for you?”
Child: “Well, what if I forget? How am I supposed to always remember? Sometimes I go off just for a minute and then forget to put it away. Then I am going to lose the whole day tomorrow just because I forgot. It’s not fair!”
Parent: “Yes, that could be a potential problem. Do you have any ideas how we can avoid that?”
Child: “Could you remind me to put it away?”
Parent: “Well, I can’t be responsible to constantly remind you, it is really your responsibility and sometimes I have to tell you three or four times till you comply.
Child: “Can you remind me once per night?”
Parent: “That sounds fair.”
Child: “And if you forget then I get to ride the next day?”
Parent: “It’s a deal.”
This is an example of a consequence which is reasonable (child is not losing his bike for a week), respectful (assuming that he will not be very humiliated), and related (he loses out on bike-riding for not putting away his bike). It is a common occurrence, hence the rule, and the criteria are well-defined. The child is validated when demonstrating that he is overwhelmed with the new responsibility and the validation helps him pull through his distress and not get stuck in his resistance. The mother, opening up grounds for problem solving, allows him to have some terms in the system. This allows the child to feel somewhat less threatened with the arrangement, without the mother having to back down from the new rule.
(If you would like an exercise to try on your own, try to imagine how you would react to a child who does not come inside on time, or when he is called in for dinner. Send it to me and we can go through it step-by-step if you get stuck.)
Forewarned: When a child exhibits a behavior that is not common and cannot be predicted as an everyday occurrence, the warning needs to be more spontaneous since it cannot be rule-based. In that case the parent needs to be prepared to forewarn the child as the behavior begins. The rules for forewarning are the same as mentioned above. However, in these cases parents should count before implementing a consequence since children often do need some time to process the validity of the warning. The child should also be reminded that he is making his own choice.
Parent: “Please stop sitting in the baby’s swing; you are too big and it can break.”
If the child complains, validate. “I know that you really enjoy the swing, I don’t blame you. Wouldn’t it be great if you would fit? C’mon, please come out.” If the child persists, here’s how to proceed.
Parent (very calmly): “If you are still in there when I say three you will forfeit some of your dessert from dinner. One, two, and three.” At that point, if the child has not complied he should simply be told that he has chosen to forfeit his dessert. When dessert comes and he displays his emotions, validate! “It is pretty upsetting to not get dessert; I don’t blame you for feeling angry.” The consistency of the parent’s actions will help train the child to make good choices. The calm demeanor and validating component will help the child tolerate the discomfort without severe resentment.
Here, the parent could not think of a Related consequence, and resorted to a typical unrelated consequence. It is commonly difficult to find something related especially when it is on the spur of the moment. That is fine, too.
Children who are trained to be responsible through calm and consistent consequences while having supportive parents help them to work through their distress to the pressures and disappointments that accompany their responsibilities become stable, confident and productive individuals.
Moshe Norman is a Licensed Social Worker in Lakewood, NJ, and specializes in parent-child relationships by helping parents identify and develop their child’s lagging skills. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 732.979.1785