When Consequences Don’t Seem to Work

Tips From Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting

By Noël Janis-Norton January 2, 2013
A Macaroni Kid Reader asks:
Our daughter was really easy going, but then our fiery son came along, and I swear he came into the world fighting. Now that he’s five, it seems like all he does is test us and do things he isn’t supposed to do. We’ve been taking things away that are important to him, but that just seems to make him more frustrated and explosive. At this point we feel like we have nothing left to motivate him to behave because we’ve taken everything away! I’d like some better ideas for 2013.

Noel Janis-Norton

It’s natural to put our focus on consequences when we’re dealing with a lot of misbehavior. Kids who are more impulsive, sensitive or intense can quickly put parents off-balance so that we’re grasping for some consequence that might make them ‘shape up’.

The trouble is that we can’t rely on consequences to improve behavior. Consequences on their own will not motivate children to want to behave well or to remember to behave well, which is really our ultimate aim. After all, if consequences on their own were effective our prisons would be empty!

We want our kids to behave because they have internalized the right thing to do and not because they fear us or fear a consequence.  Strategies we’ve discussed in earlier columns, such as Descriptive Praise and Preparing for Success, will help teach your child the right thing to do and then to do it. I recommend clicking on these links and reading about these strategies.

Here’s a new strategy for 2013 that will also help you. One reason consequences may not work is that the focus is all on taking away things or activities from our child. This can make a child with a trickier temperament even more upset and resentful, as you’ve mentioned. What I recommend is turning this upside-down and instead of taking away privileges, have your son earn them instead.

Let me explain. Our kids often have a number of things, electronic gadgets, special toys and daily TV or computer time with no strings attached. But every so often, when they keep misbehaving or breaking the rules, we get furious and try to claw back some of these things. By taking things away from our child or threatening to, we hope that he will realize the seriousness of his misbehavior and will be motivated to improve his ways. In fact, what usually happens is that he is outraged because he didn’t know that these goodies were conditional on a certain standard of behavior.

So instead of taking things away, start having him earn those things instead. When we shift our focus from taking away to earning and rewarding, a very effective consequence for misbehavior will simply be that your child has not yet earned a reward.

One family I worked with started giving their son opportunities to earn everything that he wanted and used those things to motivate him. On the weekends, he liked to watch cartoons, so he had several chores he had to do before he could do that. He had to make his bed, help empty the dishwasher, feed the cat and practice piano for 20 minutes. He was so motivated to earn his TV time that he quickly got into the habit of doing all these chores without complaining. Now he’s just in the routine of it.

Most kids are motivated by what I call ‘screen time’ (TV, computer, iPad, etc.). I recommend that whatever time you allow your child to be in front of a screen, that you have him earn that time each day. This will help him keep his focus on following your family’s rules and expectations. If your child values screen time, this is the perfect motivator to use first. If your kids don’t watch TV or play games on the computer, then think about what other things are important to them that they can start earning.

The parents I’ve coached who have shifted from punishing to rewarding always see tremendous improvements in cooperation. It also improves their relationship with their kids, and it makes them feel good to be able to reward them for all the positive things they do. Family life becomes, calmer, easier and happier!

A very Happy New Year to all the readers of Macaroni Kid. Thank you for all your comments - keep them coming!

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