How Do I Use Consequences?

A reader wrote in to ask us how to set appropriate consequences for her children. Read our response...

By Laura Vogel, Ph.D. Director of Early Childhood Therapy | Mar 09, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

A reader submitted this question to our I’m Stumped post:

I saw your post about "I'm Stumped". I get stumped at the consequence part. It's hard for me to find a consequence that relates to the behavior I want to help them change. Consequences are hard for me. I have a hard time finding ones that are beneficial to the particular issue at hand. Can you help? Or is there a better way?

This is a great parenting question! This can definitely be a tricky area for parents. We sometimes get caught in this loop – we ask a child to do something, he doesn’t do it, then we have to deliver a consequence.  After a while, it starts to feel like all behavior is linked to punishments and consequences rather than intrinsically motivated. Sound familiar?

My biggest advice on this topic is to stop and think about the point of consequences. Remember that consequences and punishment are two different things. Consequences are meant to be natural reactions to a child’s choices, with the intention of teaching a life lesson. For this reason, consequences (both positive and negative) should match the choice the child made. Punishments are penalties that don’t always connect to the behavior in a logical way. This is where most of us go wrong. We forget the whole point of having consequences for our children. Our frustration clouds our decision making and many of us fall into the trap of doling out random punishments on the fly.  Sometimes we get lucky and these punishments work – but usually only for the short term.

That’s my biggest advice when talking about consequences. If you take away nothing else, please remember this – consequences should be linked to behavior and they should exist to teach a lesson or a value, not to punish.

But let’s back up even more. How can we help kids make good choices from the outset? It is really important that a child has clear expectations. He needs to know what we’re asking him to do (and why) in order to do it. Makes sense, right? But sometimes we forget to be really clear and explicit in our expectations. Many parents ask about the “why” part as well. We tend to think that our children should just do what we ask, and we shouldn’t have to explain ourselves.  This is true at times, but in general, understanding the why behind a request helps connect your child’s behavior to a bigger purpose and strengthens the building blocks of making good choices (even when no one is looking). And let’s face it, when your boss asks you to do something, if you understand how it connects to the bigger mission, you are much more likely to give it your all. Our children are no different.

To make this even more concrete, I encourage parents to actually write down their family rules. I love when family rules are grouped by purpose, so your rules might look something like this:

We respect our home.

We clear the table and load the dishes in the dishwasher.

We make our beds every morning.

We respect each other.

We use kind words.

We value learning.

We finish our homework.

We read every night.

Of course, the details may look different for every family, but I would encourage you to actually write down your family expectations/values and hang them somewhere prominent. I also encourage families to create these together.  When children are involved in the process of building their family’s expectations, they are more likely to uphold the rules later. For young kids, I love the idea of taking pictures of your child doing each of the tasks. For example, you might have a picture of him brushing his teeth, clearing his dish off the table, etc. 

Be mindful of how you establish your expectations for each of your children. If you ask a young child to clean his room, and you don’t give any praise until the entire room is spotless, then he’s likely to give up. The job is too big for him. But if you break it into smaller steps, or praise the process as he goes, he’s getting little successes that make him feel proud. You can say, “Thank you for picking up your socks! Next why don’t you put away all of your shoes?”

So that’s where I’d start. First, make sure the expectations are clear. Children need to know what is expected of them if they’re going to meet our standards.

Next, think about logical consequences if your family’s expectations are not met. If a child doesn’t clean his room when asked, what is the lesson there? What’s a natural consequence? Well, it helps to get to the root of it. Why do you care if your child has a clean room? Because it is important to treat our things with respect. Or because we don’t want to invite people over to a messy house. Then, what’s a natural consequence? If a child doesn’t clean his room, he is showing that he doesn’t respect his things, so maybe he loses an item. Or he’s showing that he’s not able to have company, so maybe he can’t have a friend over for a playdate. Your son refuses to brush his teeth. I’d recommend he doesn’t get to eat dessert (“You can’t afford to have your teeth exposed to any more sugar than is necessary”). Think about the common issues that bubble up frequently. If you have set consequences that fit different scenarios you’ll be better able to enforce those.

I also encourage parents to rethink how they talk about “consequences.” So often we are in reactionary mode. However, if we think about the experiences or things to which our children have access, many of these are privileges and not necessities.  So instead of saying to your teenager “I’m taking away your cell phone”, you might say, “In order to maintain the right to use this cell phone, there are expectations I have for how you demonstrate enough maturity to use this.  These expectations include…..”   The way we talk about the process can change our children’s perceptions of their responsibility and their capacity to have some control over their world.

It is best to avoid trying to think up consequences in the moment. That’s when we mess up and say silly things like, “If you don’t clean your room, I’m cancelling the trip to Disneyland!” This is dangerous if you have no intention of enforcing the consequence, and especially not good if your consequence affects other people. When we say things like this and don’t follow through, children quickly learn that we aren’t consistent and therefore they are not consistent.

Of course we never want to withhold things our children need. So we’re never going to take away food (except special treats like dessert) and we won’t take away affection or cuddling. And if we can’t think of a good consequence in the moment and we’re about to throw out the Disneyland threat, you can just say, “There needs to be a consequence for this behavior. I need some time to think about what it will be.” This gives both you and your child time to cool down and think.  It also potentially allows for a calm, and thoughtful discussion about the lesson you want your child to learn, not just a focus on the consequence and the negative emotions about this. 

Think about the difference between these two interactions:

“You need to clean your room or else you won’t get to go to Josh’s party this weekend.” OR:

“Okay, it’s time to clean your room. Remember our family rule about respecting our home –cleaning your room is part of that. What do you want to start with first – putting away your clothes or making your bed?” Then if your child gets distracted, you can say, “Just a reminder – you need to clean up your room. You’re doing a great job, you only have a few more socks to put away and then we can decide what’s next!” And finally, if he doesn’t complete the task, you might say something like, “Okay, remember that the consequence for not cleaning your room is that you can’t have friends over. You have chosen not to clean your room, so you’ve chosen not to have Josh over tomorrow. But if you want Josh to come over this weekend, you should finish cleaning.”  After this, walk away and let your child choose. If you have been inconsistent with consequences in the past, your child may need to experience the consistency a few times before he understands how consequences are linked to his actions.

Homework is another common struggle for parents. Children are often not naturally motivated to do their homework, and so parents find themselves threatening consequences in order to get their child to finish. What’s a natural consequence for not finishing homework? Getting a poor grade. Of course we want our kids to do well in school and we want to help them when they need it, but we can’t get them there by hovering over their shoulders and issuing consequence after consequence until they finish every problem. The same advice about praise applies here – be sure you’re giving constant feedback, like after your child finishes two problems. “Great work on the first two problems! I noticed you kept working even when that second one got a little tricky. (Notice how I focused on the child’s effort and not just the accuracy of the answer.)” But if your child is continuing to resist finishing his homework, you might reach out to the teacher and let her know you’re teaching your child about natural consequences, and that he’s having a hard time finishing his homework at night. Let her know that he’ll be turning in incomplete homework and it’s intentional (that way she won’t think you’re a neglectful parent.) Then let your child go to school without his homework completed and see what happens. Does it motivate him to do it the next time? This can be a challenge for parents to give up this control over their child’s performance, but it is a really important lesson that children can learn early and carry with them.

Of course I need to mention that struggles which come up consistently, such as nightly challenges with homework, can sometimes be more than just a child who doesn’t feel like doing it. I suggest you do a two week trial with your new expectations and natural consequences. If, after two weeks, behavior is not shifting, you might need to dig a little deeper and chase the why. If a child is extremely upset frequently, or if “good days” are the exception rather than the rule, I encourage you to seek individualized assistance for your child. We don’t want children receiving negative consequences for expectations that actually exceed their capacity. 

Always remember that every child is different. What works well for one child might not be a good fit for another. I tell parents that fairness doesn’t mean everything is the same for all children, but rather fairness means giving each child what he or she needs to be successful. In the end, we want children who are self-motivated and work hard because it feels good to accomplish a task or achieve a goal.

We appreciate the question! If you have a parenting question you’d like answered, please feel free to email and we’ll do our best to get it answered for you.