Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

Whether you’re new to positive parenting or a seasoned veteran, the issue of consequences can get your head spinning. Logical versus natural versus imposed. Then there are positive and negative consequences. What is the difference between them all?

I’m going to attempt to simplify this whole consequence dilemma by giving you one secret tool.

Throw the word “consequence” entirely out of your vocabulary and replace it with the term “problem-solving.”

Do you see how this changes the whole concept in your mind? Now it’s not about coming up with something to do to your child, but it’s about working with your child to find a solution. Having your child involved in the problem-solving process will not only teach him valuable lessons and instill self-discipline, but it will leave his dignity intact, and he’ll feel good about himself and his relationship with you.

Because I like to give actual examples instead of leaving you guessing, I’ll start with a little personal story. My oldest son was barely 4 years old at the time we went to the bank where I used to work for a visit with some friends. Sitting in my friend’s office, he began spraying the compressed air duster on everything. I asked him to please put it down, which he did briefly, but he couldn’t resist for long (that stuff is pretty fun to spray) and he ended up emptying out the whole can.

Now, you might be wondering why I didn’t just get up and take it from him, and the answer is because I saw an opportunity here to teach him a valuable lesson. When we got back to the car, I kindly explained to him that we had to respect the property of others. I did not lecture, I was just matter-of-fact about it. I said “We really need to get a new can for the bank to replace what you used. How are we going to fix this? He thought for a moment and said “I could do chores to earn the money!” I told him that was a great idea and that I was proud of him for thinking of a solution. When we got home, I let him wipe off the kitchen table and the sink, and I gave him $1. The next day, we stopped by the bank, and he took the money to my friend and told her he’d earned the money himself to give back to her to buy more air duster.

*Edited to add: Keep in mind this was just one day, one instance, one lesson. We teach many, many  lessons throughout everyday interactions. He knows it’s not OK to waste things and act selfishly because I’ve taught him that in many other interactions with him. In this particular scenario, the lesson I wanted to teach was that of responsibility and righting wrongs. I made the call to do so because wasting an air duster can is a fairly harmless act and the consequence (earning the money to pay for it) was small. Also, this was a good friend of mine and she was in on the lesson. I explained to her that he’d be earning it back and would bring the money back to her to pay for it, and when he did so, she encouraged his responsibility. Had I not known this person, had it been a slightly different scenario, I would have held my limit and put it out of his reach. However, parenting is a series of  choices, and in this instance I decided to let him experience the consequence of his choice to not listen to me.*

Why was that not a punishment? Because I didn’t make him feel bad about himself, he came up with the solution, he willingly did the chores, and he felt proud of himself when he took the money back to her.

If I would have said “Shame on you! You did exactly what I asked you not to do! Now you’re going to do chores and give her back the money!” he would have felt ashamed, angry, and resentful. That would have been punishment. Make sense?

Let me give you just a couple more examples of problem-solving instead of imposing consequences.

Note: Because problem-solving is a cortex (pre-frontal) function, the child probably won’t be ready to be involved in the problem-solving process until at least age 4. However, you can certainly let your younger-than-4 children hear you problem-solve. Talk it through with them. “You wanted Emma’s doll, so you took it from her, but now Emma is crying. You both want the doll. Hmm. How can we solve this problem? How about you and Emma take turns with the doll?”

Your 5 year old son gets upset at Grandma’s house and yells “I don’t like you!” to her. Grandma tells you about when you pick him up. Instead of telling him he was rude and taking away his tv for 2 days, involve him in making it all better.

Ask him what happened at Grandma’s. Hear him out. You might say “I understand you got upset. Everyone gets upset sometimes, but we have to be careful with words because they can hurt. Do you think those words hurt Grandma’s feelings?” Ask him “How can we make Grandma feel better? Can you think of something?” He may decide to pick her some flowers or make her a card or write her an apology note. If he doesn’t come up with anything on his own, offer him a few suggestions like I just listed and let him choose. When he chooses, help him carry out his solution by taking him outside to pick the flowers or giving him supplies to make a card and tell him how much better he will make Grandma feel. Let him surprise her with it! He’ll probably be smiling ear-to-ear.

Your 13-year-old has math homework due the next day, but she wants to go to a movie with her friend. You remind her of the homework, and she says “I hate homework! I want to go to the movie!” Resist the urge to make her sit down and do it “this instant!” and give her the opportunity to problem-solve. You might say “Well, I’d rather watch a movie than do homework too, but I wonder what your teacher will say if you don’t have your homework?” Lend an empathetic ear to what she has to say. If she doesn’t begin to come up with a solution, you can coach her. “What time does the movie start? I’ll bet you can get the homework done in time and still make the movie and have your homework ready for your teacher tomorrow.”

Obviously every scenario can go a hundred different ways, but the idea is to involve your child in the process. Let your child come up with as much of the solution with as little prompting from you as possible, but do offer coaching if he’s young or having a difficult time problem-solving himself. There should be no shaming, blaming, or anger in the problem-solving process. If you’re child is upset, or if you are upset, wait until everyone is calm to begin the process. The keys to successful problem-solving are:

1. Your child feels GOOD about it afterward.

2. YOU feel good about it afterward.

3. The problem has been solved.

I hope this helps you solve the problem of figuring out consequences!


  • Pamela Walker Merten Posted 26 June 2011 5:53

    Our 3 year old grandson dropped to the floor – refusing to get up because he didn't like direction I was taking as we walked through the mall. He looked at me -eyeball to eyeball – & sad, "I don't want to go!" I LOVE that he knows what he wants and is adamant about getting his want met and can communicate that directly. I returned his gaze and smiled. "I want to go this way and today that's the way we are going to go!" I began to walk away – not far! – he eventually followed. He did the same thing about 5 minutes later. (He was tired.) I did the same thing. I had purchased a musical card for him. When we got back to my house, he asked me to give it to him. I asked him what happened at the mall. He said, "I wouldn't get off the floor." I told him he can have the card "tomorrow" because of that. He was OK. When his uncle walked in, he said, "Uncle Kyle, I was naughty at the mall. I can have my card tomorrow."

  • Suzanne Sergis @ TCOYou.com Posted 26 June 2011 11:03

    I've realized that what I've been doing has not been positive nor working but I haven't been able to think of what to do instead. This is the eye-opener, er "brain-opener", I needed! Thank you for the inspiration!!

  • dulce de leche Posted 27 June 2011 4:32

    I love how clearly you present this! What a valuable way of looking at it. <3 So, when are you going to write a book? Because I would totally buy it. πŸ™‚

  • Parent with Potential Posted 27 June 2011 23:57

    I have been using this in my work and with my own family for 6 years now and I also think the examples you give demonstrate how important communication is. Communicating clearly what and why and then listening to the child and hearing what they think, problem solving as a skill can be taught. Thanks for a great post.

  • RE Posted 20 July 2011 16:20

    Dulce, maybe a book one day? lol.

    Thanks everyone for your comments. I am touched. πŸ™‚

  • TummyMummy Posted 22 August 2011 13:06

    I found your blog a few weeks ago and I love it. I've struggled, coming from a crazy background, knowing how to positive parent. You really do have to face a lot of old voices of your own first. At least I have to πŸ™‚ I was wondering. You speak briefly of how it is difficult to use this with under 4s. Could you offer me some links or ideas for 2s? I like the concrete examples. It's hard for me to think of the right thing to do in the moment sometimes and still fall back to an authoritative voice etc.

  • Kimberly Storms Posted 29 April 2013 14:19

    The waiting till the next day though is a form or punishment right? I have found with my kids that at 2 and 3 they don't have a sense of time and consequences for past events and waiting for future ones doesn't go well. It creates anxiety and it just adds to chaos.

    My youngest of 4 is now in that stage and we have actively chosen to not take her into situations that can be too much for her to handle, such as shopping and the mall and even the aquarium. She doesn't like direction and even when we choose to follow her, she has melt downs. Having older children and researching we know she will over come this phase. Till then, she doesn't need to be in those places and she doesn't know she is missing them so it isn't a punishment. It is simply us not setting her up to fail and so we bypass the whole power struggle. Sure we test if she is ready again from time to time, but we are always sure to make her the priority and get out of there if she can't handle it. So far, for her she thrives outdoors and doesn't get overwhelmed, shopping though is still not helpful to her. Soon though I am sure. It is not that she is naughty, going is just not meeting her needs and she doesn't yet know how to express it beyond tantrums.

  • Laura Ling Posted 30 April 2013 9:31

    Your intent matters a great deal in these situations. In Pamela's case, I would say that it was applied as a punishment, as they were no longer in the situation and her grandson didn't know about the consequences until after he acted. In your case, keeping your daughter out of situations you know she can't handle is managing her environment appropriately.

    For toddlers and preschoolers, for the most part, I wouldn't suggest imposing consequences lasting into the next day except for the following situations:
    – The child has been given multiple chances to play with something appropriately
    – The object is dangerous and you've given one warning
    – It's evening and bringing the object out will interfere will settling down for bed

    When you see a pattern emerging that something has to be taken away frequently, it's probably a good sign that your child is not yet ready to handle the responsibility. I would remove that from his environment until you think he's ready to try again. Otherwise, you're setting him up to fail. It's not punishment, although he may not agree with your decision and be disappointed.

    Disappointment is ok and you trust that he will be able to cope with it. The goal is not to keep your child from ever being upset, but to set limits without punishment.

  • Kristy B Posted 11 July 2014 8:13

    Great article! I'm hoping there might be a second installment where examples are given of what might work on the occasions when a child doesn't react well to the problem solving? Ex. If the 13 year old still doesn't want to do homework after a gentle suggestion? Or, if the situation is a little different, like if the 4 year old picked up something that couldn't be used – instead of the arguably harmless air can say it was something dangerous, or something classified as off limits by the person who owns it?

  • Anonymous Posted 19 August 2014 8:37

    Thank you for this, I enjoyed reading it a lot. I have a question about this though, not a challenge or disagreement, just a genuine advice request: For your first example how do ensure the consequence isn't that s/he doesn't interpret the making it better (buying a new can) to mean it's okay to act selfishly as long as you do something to make up for it afterwards? My concern is that in life, making up for the deed after the fact doesn't always resolve the situation, or in some cases is impossible: How do you teach a child restraint and reflection during the action too?

  • Michelle Posted 19 August 2014 8:37

    How do you problem solve with a child (9) who hits or throws things when get gets in arguments with a friend? What do you do in the exact moment it is happening and what to do after?

  • Rebecca Posted 19 August 2014 8:45

    Hi honeyfitzshop! Thanks for dropping by.

    To answer your question, I ensure he doesn't get the idea that it is ok to act selfishly as long as you make up for it in 2 ways:

    First, I teach him that by talking with him about it, asking how he would feel if someone wasted/destroyed his stuff, and talk to him often about respecting others and their things.

    Secondly, keep in mind this was just one day, one instance, one lesson. We teach many, many lessons throughout everyday interactions. He knows it's not okay to act selfishly because I've taught him that in many other interactions with him. In this particular scenario, the lesson I wanted to teach was that of responsibility and righting wrongs. I made the judgment call to do so because wasting a can of air is a fairly harmless act and the consequence (earning it back) was small. Also, this was a good friend of mine and she was in on the lesson. I told her he'd be earning it back and would bring the money back to her, and she encouraged his responsibility when he did so.

    Had I not known this person, had it been any other scenario, I would have held my limit and put it out of his reach. However, parenting is a series of choices, and I decided here to let him experience the natural consequence of his actions when he chooses not to listen to me.

    I hope that clears it up. πŸ™‚

  • Rebecca Posted 19 August 2014 9:20

    Sure, here is a good resource. http://www.ahaparenting.com/ages-stages/toddlers

    Also, my book, Positive Parenting in Action (on Amazon) offers more than 40 scenarios and is written for ages 0-6.

  • Rebecca Posted 19 August 2014 9:31

    Hi Michelle,

    There is no simple answer for this, and please keep in mind I'm not a professional, but I will try to help as best I can.

    Nine year olds should have better emotions regulation so as not to hit and throw, in my opinion. So, I think the key is to find out WHY it gets to that point. Does the child need taught emotional skills? Is it with one particular friend or any friend? If it is with one friend, there may be something going on behind the scenes to trigger this emotion. If the child has the tendency to throw or hit anyone when angry, then it is more about helping the child cope with anger. Teach techniques he/she can use in the moment, and go over and over them until it becomes second nature.

    In the exact moment – Stop the argument. Separate your child and the friend. "It seems you're having trouble being peaceful. Take a break from each other until you are feeling ready to talk again." You may need to send the friend home so you can deal with your child.

    After, talk with your child about his/her feelings, why the explosive reaction, and what can be done about it. Teach emotions regulation skills of deep breathing, walking away, visualizing pleasant imagery, squeezing a ball, etc. Practice it often.

    I hope this is helpful. Check ahaparenting.com for more professional advice. πŸ™‚

  • Rebecca Posted 19 August 2014 9:32

    Hi Kristy,

    There was a second installment. Perhaps you'll find this helpful. http://www.positive-parents.org/2014/03/whats-deal-with-consequenceswhen-theyre.html

  • Rebecca Posted 19 August 2014 9:37

    To answer specifically though, if the 13 year old still doesn't want to do homework, I would suggest letting her take responsibility for it entirely. Don't do it. Deal with the consequences from the teacher. Get the bad grade. Often we jump in and rescue them instead of letting them take the fall.

    If a 4 year old picked up something that couldn't be used, something dangerous or off limits, then you take it immediately and put it out of reach. Stick to your limit. "You can't have that. It's dangerous." If you can't put it out of reach and the child goes back for it again, hold the child in time in on your lap. If he fights/squirms/hits/pinches, it's time to leave. When things are calm, have a discussion about respecting people and property. Use role playing, puppets or toys, or drawings to explain this to a 4 year old as it is more likely to capture his attention and sink in. πŸ™‚

  • Tiffany Gibson Posted 25 November 2015 16:28

    Hi! I just did a search for Child Consequences and clicked on your article, which I loved and immediately sent the link to my husband. I'm not parenting positively…didn't even know that was a thing…but would like to start. We have a nearly eight year old daughter, an only. Have you addressed when children speak in an ugly voice or not picking up after themselves in any of your blogging/writing? Thanks a ton! I would really love to revamp the way we parent so that we can have more love and joy and less yuckiness.

  • Rebecca Posted 25 November 2015 16:29

    Hi Tiffany, I'd love to send you a PDF eBook of my best-selling Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting. Please send me your email to admin@positive-parents.org.


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