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How to Choose Appropriate Consequences

Strike a Balance Between Being Too Lax and Too Severe

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A mom disciplines her young son.

Choose appropriate consequences when your kids misbehave.

© Jamie Grill Photography / Getty Images

Choosing appropriate consequences is an important part of shaping your kids’ behavior. But choosing consequences that are just right for each situation — without being too lax or too severe — is difficult, especially when you're parenting on your own. If you worry that the discipline strategies you're using right now aren't working, then it's time to rethink the consequences you've chosen to use.

Appropriate Consequences

Appropriate consequences teach our children that they’re in control of their own behavior — even when we’re not there to nag them. They’re also tailored to match each child’s developmental stage, so we’re never expecting more than our kids are capable of.

These kinds of effective consequences can be divided into two categories: natural and logical consequences.

  • Natural consequences are things that happen on their own as a result of the child’s behavior. For example, losing your cell phone means that you no longer have a cell phone to use. Forgetting your homework means getting a zero.

  • Logical consequences are steps that we take, as parents, to help our children see that choosing poor behaviors comes with some unpleasant side effects. These aren’t punishments, because they’re not punitive. Logical consequences aren't physically or emotionally damaging. An example would be having your children go to bed early the evening after they refused to go to bed on time. The consequence is related to the behavior, and it makes sense for the situation. It’s also unpleasant enough that they won’t want to suffer the same consequence again and again, so it serves as a motivator to changing their own behavior.

In both cases, you want your children to see that they really choose their consequences themselves the moment they choose their behavior. You can do this in two ways:

  1. Communicating with your kids up front about consequences. What you’re going to do when your kids misbehave should never be a mystery. They should have a pretty good idea of what’s coming, based on clearly defined family rules. This way, they can see how avoiding the negative behavior is beneficial to them, because they know up front what it will cost them.

  2. Remaining calm when your kids misbehave. When we get angry at our kids for their behavior, we make the issue about us instead of about them. Doing everything we can to stay calm actually shocks them, which demonstrates the seriousness of the issue. And it also eliminates the power struggle that distracts our kids from focusing on what really initiated the consequence – their own behavior!

Examples of Appropriate Consequences

Here are some examples of age-appropriate consequences for children of every age:

Infants – Infants don't need to be punished, ever. However, there will be times when you will want to change your baby's behavior. For example, let's say he's grabbing a toy out of your older child's hands, or throwing his spoon on the ground in an effort to make you pick it back up – for the one-hundredth time! Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Change your tone of voice. Your baby is very sensitive to the tone of voice you use. To change his behavior with your voice, speak in a different, deeper, tone. A simple "no" will usually suffice in combination with redirection.

  2. Redirect your baby to a different activity. This means helping your baby focus on something else. For example, when he's trying to grab a toy of your older child's hand, give him something else to play with.

Toddlers – In addition to the consequences listed above (for infants), you can add time out to your repertoire. This means putting your child in a separate location, such as a special chair to step, for a few minutes. Time out doesn’t have to last long to be effective, either. The trick is to stop engaging with your child while he’s in time out. You have to ignore him in order for it to work! Aim for the number of minutes equal to his age. So a three-year-old would be in time out for no longer than three minutes.

Preschoolers – For preschoolers, you'll want to use the same tactics you used when your kids were toddlers (listed above), while adding a twist on the traditional time out. Try putting toys or privileges in time out! This will work best if the toy is in time out for a limited amount of time, or in the case of losing privileges, the loss is short-lived. Preschoolers aren't old enough yet to be motivated by something that’s days away.

School-Age Children – In addition to the tactics you used for preschoolers (listed above), you'll want to choose more impactful privileges to take away. For example, leaving a play date early or losing TV time or computer time.

Tweens – In addition to all of the consequences you've been using up to this point, you'll want to hone in on consequences that will really matter to your tween. For example, the loss of cell phone, video game privileges, or time with friends.

Teens – As with tweens, you'll want to tailor the privileges you choose to take away to the situation and to what makes the most difference to your teen. Some examples include temporarily removing Facebook or driving privileges, moving your teen's curfew up, and limiting the freedoms they’ve earned up to this point. You only need to choose on consequence at a time for it to be effective. In situations where your teen doesn’t seem to be getting the point, it may be helpful to write a contract that lists the types of consequences she can expect for various infractions.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Establishing a set of appropriate consequences won’t do the trick unless you also let your kids know what they’re doing right. So make sure that you’re intentional about using positive reinforcement to celebrate the behaviors you want your kids to repeat day after day. Believe that they really do want your approval, even if they never show it, and look high and low for things you can genuinely praise and acknowledge.

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