In 2011, I wrote What’s the Deal with Consequences where I said, Throw the word “consequence” entirely out of your vocabulary and replace it with the term “problem-solving.” That’s quite good advice, if I do say so myself. Replacing “consequence” with “problem-solving” helps you see the problem in a new way. Now, rather than coming up with something that will make your child sorry, you’re teaching your child how to correct his mistakes and learn from them.
I have 2.5 more years of parenting under my belt now. Parenting years are sort of like dog years. I’m fairly sure I age 7 years per 1 year of parenting, but with it comes a little more wisdom as well. At least, wisdom in my own journey.
What about when you’ve problem-solved it to death and your child still makes a wrong choice? What about when the natural consequence is too dangerous or your child doesn’t give a flip about the natural consequence? What then?
First, I think it’s important to define punishment and consequences.
pun·ish·ment noun ˈpə-nish-mənt: suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution
Punishment is making your child suffer, experience pain, or experience loss in order to serve as retribution. So, obviously spanking (causing pain), grounding (causing suffering or loss), or taking away toys or privileges (causing loss) are all about one thing, you intend to make the child suffer because of her behavior. The thing about punishment is that “serving as retribution” doesn’t last. That’s why the majority of offenders who get out of jail repeat an offense. Retribution doesn’t really teach us anything valuable. In most cases, it serves to just make us angry and vengeful.
con·se·quence noun ˈkän(t)-sə-ˌkwen(t)s: something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions
That sounds more helpful, except we have an uncanny knack for turning these into punishments, too. This is where the line gets blurry. I fought with myself over the semantics of consequences and punishments for quite a while, and I came to the conclusion that intent is really what separates the two. There are 2 keys in turning from retribution to teaching: INTENT and EMPATHY.
Natural consequences and problem-solving are still the best way to go, even for older children, but, let’s be honest, they don’t always apply. Sometimes there needs to be an immediate lesson by the parent. If your daughter hits a ball through the neighbor’s window, she’ll learn a lot more by working for the money to pay for the window than she will by losing her cell phone for a month. Working for the money isn’t punishment. You’re intent isn’t to make her suffer. You’re teaching her how to right her wrongs, and that’s a really important lesson. However, even though your intent might be good, if there is no empathy, you stand the chance of it backfiring and making her feel negatively towards you and blame you for her feelings and mistakes. That would look like this:
“You idiot! Why didn’t you watch what you were doing? You’re going to work and pay Mr. Anderson back EVERY PENNY for that window! You can kiss your social life goodbye because you’re going to be too busy WORKING!!”
Your intent was good enough, but there was no empathy. You just made her feel like a crummy person and now she’s going to internalize that and resent every penny she has to earn. So, in the end, she’ll learn that righting her wrongs is associated with negative feelings of worth, and so how often is she going to want to right her wrongs in the future?
How about this?
“Oh my goodness! Mr. Anderson’s window is broken. I understand it was an accident. We all make mistakes. What are you going to do about this?”
If she says something like “I’ll go apologize” or even “nothing,” she’ll need more coaching.
“An apology is a good place to start, but the window is your responsibility. It’ll need to be paid for.”
Now, she’s still not likely to be thrilled about doing the work, and that’s fine. If you give her empathy all along the way, such as “I’m really sorry that you can’t go out with your friends today. You did promise Mr. Anderson you’d weed his garden to help pay for that window. You’re doing a really responsible thing, and I’m proud of you,” she’s much more likely to build on her self worth (she’s capable and responsible) and, in the end, feel good that she made it right.
Here’s an example straight out of my own home. My son recently poured out an entire new bottle of body wash in the tub and fed the dog an entire huge bag of dog treats all within a 24 hour timespan. Now, had this been the first time or the second time he’d wasted something, we’d have talked about it. But it wasn’t the first time or the second time, and he was developing a habit of wasting things, and obviously my chats weren’t sticking with him. So, I told him I was sorry he’d made the choice to waste the soap and treats, that he was good kid and I knew he’d just wanted lots of bubbles and to make the dog really happy, but that these things cost money and we weren’t made of the stuff, so he’d need to use his allowance money to buy new soap and treats.
He wasn’t exactly thrilled about using his allowance money, but that isn’t the point. The point is that I affirmed that he had good intentions, but I let him know it was still a poor choice. I didn’t yell or shame him. We had this conversation while he was cuddled in my lap. The next time we went to the store, he got out his little wallet and paid for those 2 items – albeit a bit begrudgingly. He hasn’t wasted anything since then, and it’s been several weeks now.
The natural consequence, of course, would have been that he had nothing to bathe in for a week and, well, eww. That doesn’t work for me, and frankly he wouldn’t have cared about that anyway. So while natural is great, it isn’t always feasible.
What about when your child is verbally or physically aggressive to her sibling? The natural consequence may take years to show up, and the result would be a ruined relationship between the two. You could make her go to her room, but what is she really going to be thinking about in there?
If she’s young, you’ll problem-solve. How can you handle this better next time? What do you do with anger? Let me show you how to handle anger without hurting your sister.
For an older child whom you’ve already problem-solved with, given her tools, taught her what to do, and she still chooses to call her sister a “stupid butthead,” what is one to do?
What I do is I take the aggressor off with me and we go to the table. I read him our family rules, and I have him write down the rule that pertains to what he did. So if he called his brother a name, he writes the rule about how we treat each other with respect. The writing is to help him memorize the rule better. Then I ask him how he’s going to make it up to his brother. It is now his responsibility to repair the relationship. He almost always chooses to make him a drawing of them holding hands. He takes the drawing to his brother and they make up instantly. Children are very forgiving.
You may be thinking that if he “almost always chooses” something, that this must not be solving the problem because it keeps happening. Well, it is happening less and less, and I don’t expect perfection. I still do things that cause me to need to repair my relationships! The goal is not to make them perfect, but to make them responsible, and teaching them how to repair rifts in relationships is a life skill that will serve them well. Sitting in a time out chair to think about it doesn’t teach them that skill. I asked my kid once, years ago, what he thought about while he was in time-out. He said, “How mad I am at you.” Well, that worked well.
Last one. Just the other day, my 5 year old decided not to pick up his toys. Most of the time, he cooperates just fine, but not this particular day. I’d asked him several times while I was running about cleaning and picking up other rooms, and he just kept saying, “You do it.” I’d said, “I’m busy with the rest of the house, please pick them up. I need to vacuum that room.” I came back in, and he hadn’t done it. I picked them all up and I put them in the back of the house where he couldn’t get to them. “Since you chose not to pick up your toys after I’d asked you nicely several times, I did pick them up for you, but now they’re put away for the rest of the day.” That sure looks like an good old-fashioned punishment, but what was my intent and did I deliver with empathy? He didn’t pick up the toys, so he lost them – that’s a logical consequence to not picking them up. A natural consequence would be that the playroom was a wreck and wouldn’t get vacuumed, but that doesn’t work for me. He wouldn’t care if it didn’t get vacuumed anyway, so the natural consequence in that case wasn’t helpful.
We all have to figure out what works best for our children in the time and space that we’re in. We grow as we learn, and we learn as we go. Always keep your relationship #1, and as Og Mandino said, “Do all things with love.”
That’s what really matters.