How to Set Healthy Consequences (for Our Kids)
Updated: May 4, 2018
In my recent article about subtle modes of violence, I referred to a parent who was punishing his child for bullying by shaming him. I explained that this is a violent act toward the child's self-esteem and I pointed out that consequences are much more effective than punishments.
Today I would like to take a closer look on how we can form those healthy consequences for our children.
What We’ve Been Doing
In our culture, there are two distinct ways to come by parenting philosophies:
Following whatever we were taught/programmed as children
Intentional and conscious decisions based on personal values
Classically, parents in our culture have tended to follow the first path but more and more we are seeing families making much more intentional decisions about how to raise their families. This trend is healthier, by far, for our children than the blind programmed approach to parenting that has been the case for such a long time.
I’ve noticed that parents are choosing to reach out to the science behind brain development, emotional health, mental health, and personal rights more and more as time goes on.
However, there are still plenty of families who are damaging their children (and therefore our future) with the techniques they employ to correct/punish these kids. This happens in ‘blind’ parenting as well as intentional parenting.
The idea of ‘punishment’ is (or should be) an outdated concept. Historically, parents have held the idea that they own their children (‘She’s my most prized possession.’ or ‘He’s the best thing I’ve ever had’). Not only is this a barbaric concept, thoroughly unneeded in today’s world, but it breeds habits and modes of parenting that damage a child’s self-esteem and personal well-being.
Why It Doesn’t Work
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that our children need our guidance; that’s why we’re the parents. However, the idea of ‘punishing’ a child doesn’t make any sense. You are inflicting a synthetic reality on the child that doesn’t relate to the real-life situation and is, therefore, is not effective.
Johnny has stolen a 5 dollar bill from your wallet. You find out and respond by grounding him for two weeks, after having a stern lecture about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
How does this ‘punishment’ help the child change their behavior? Sure, perhaps it instills the fear of doing it again but how well has fear worked as a deterrent in our society? Not well. It forces the perpetrator into the dark, out of the eyesight of others, to continue their unhealthy behavior.
We see this with sexual predators, the vast majority of which are repeat offenders. We put them in a database, label them with a tag that will follow them for the rest of their lives and ostracize them from our communities; all measures meant to instill the fear of doing it again. Yet, they keep committing crimes.
This shows us that fear is not enough. Fear doesn’t TEACH us anything except to hide the habits and actions that aren’t acceptable.
Why It’s Important to Change
When we use fear-based ‘punishments’ with our kids, they learn to be curious or impulsive without our knowledge. They learn that we don’t have their backs and that they must hide their true selves and issues from us to stay ‘safe’.
With a society full of such toxicity as rape-culture, misogyny, racism, bigotry, classism, elite capitalism, drugs, suicide, and disconnection, it is common for all of that crud to breed in the dark.
Politicians meet prostitutes and do drugs covertly. Rape-culture hides in aggressive comments or stares that have no recourse. Classism is hidden in the gentrification of our cities, masquerading as economic development.
There’s always a smoke-screen or some way for these things to stay hidden. *This* is what we are teaching our children when we ‘punish’ them. We tell them that as long as they don’t get caught, the reasoning behind the poor decision they made is completely okay.
The Key to Change
The key to shifting this trend? Intentional and reality-based ‘consequences’.
While punishments are created to deter the offender from repeating the undesired action, consequences give a real-life opportunity for learning and shifting the logic that led to the action.
Let’s turn the above punishment into a consequence example:
Johnny steals a 5 dollar bill from your wallet. When you notice, you sit Johnny down and ask him *why* he took the money. He tells you that he wanted to buy some candy at school and didn’t think you’d approve.
You respond by telling him that candy does taste good and that it’s understandable that he would want some. His feelings/urges are okay, however the action he took isn’t. You explain that you work for $X per hour at your job and that by stealing the $5 he has essential robbed you of XX minutes of your life. You also show him a series of videos on how sugar impacts the body, giving him the ‘homework’ of writing a paragraph on why consuming sugar isn’t a healthy nutritional choice.
Furthermore, you realize that Johnny, a first grader, is curious about how money works but doesn’t have any sense of what it represents or how to be responsible with it. So you implement a chore list which will earn him an allowance. You work with him to learn how to save, spend and manage his new financial freedom.
In this example, we see that Johnny’s dignity as a person (his self-esteem) is left intact, while he is made to face real-world consequences that directly correlate to his action. Not only has he been educated so that he might make a more informed decision next time but he has also been empowered to own his decisions and responsibilities.
4 Steps to Healthy Consequences
Alright, so consequence over punishment is making sense but how do we go about figuring out what consequences are appropriate and how to carry them out?
Let’s look at the four steps to creating appropriate consequences for our kids, using the example of Johnny:
1. The Consequence Should Directly Relate to the Action
The most important aspect to creating effective consequences is to make sure that the consequence fits the ‘crime’. I do this by thinking what natural consequences might come up for me if I were to take the action.
Depending on the action, I might have broken someone’s trust, debased my own integrity, caused someone else to feel bad about themselves, or created a bad situation for another. So, the natural consequences are that I might lose a friend, lose a piece of my self-esteem, or have harmed to another being.
We don’t need to replicate these natural consequences exactly but the consequence we hand down to our child needs to hold these at the core.
You explain that you work for $X per hour at your job and that by stealing the $5 he has essential robbed you of XX minutes of your life. You also show him a series of videos on how sugar impacts the body, giving him the ‘homework’ of writing an essay on why consuming sugar isn’t the healthy nutritional choice.
We can see (above) that the consequence directly speaks to the reasons he shouldn’t have taken the action: 1) money represents hours of life and that stealing it is, essentially, stealing a piece of another’s life and 2) candy is full of sugar, which is really bad for him.
2. Respond, not Attack
As parents, we often feel that we’re ‘failing’ when our child acts in an undesirable way. However, making mistakes is a natural part of growing up. Just because our child acts in a way we don’t like doesn’t mean that they are trying to hurt us or that they are bad. They are navigating and experiencing their young lives, that’s all.
So reacting in anger and shaming the child is unhelpful and unhealthy.
You respond by telling him that candy does taste good and that it’s understandable that he would want some. His feelings/urges are okay, however the action he took isn’t.
Responding to the child in a way that honors their experiences and feelings puts them in a place of being receptive to the learning that needs to happen.
3. Talk About Personal Values, Rather Than ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’
As alluded to above, the consequence should serve to point to the child’s own values.
If the child values trust, talk about how they broke another’s trust and how that impacts the other person’s ability to show up for the child. If the child values being kind, the consequence should highlight how the other person might have felt about being treated the way they were.
Putting their actions in sheer terms of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ takes away a child’s natural learning curve regarding their own internal understand of what is right and wrong for them. Perhaps their version will look a lot like yours, but maybe not. Helping them understand their own personal values and forming ethics around those values will be the most helpful to them being a healthy and contributing member of our world.
...by stealing the $5 he has essential robbed you of XX minutes of your life.
Johnny loves you (love being his value) and understanding what he’s done to you will help him see that his action was in violation of his value of love.
4. Figure Out and Respond to the Unmet Need
Every action a person takes is taken in order to meet their needs. So, when a child acts out of accordance with the agreements you’ve made together, s/he is trying to get an unmet need met.
...You implement a chore list which will earn him an allowance. You work with him to learn how to save, spend and manage his new financial freedom.
Johnny sees money being used and exchanged all around him. In our capitalist society, he can see the power that money holds. However, without access to and guidance around it, he has no way to meet his curiosity and educate himself. He stole in order to meet his need.
Responding by creating an opportunity to explore money, you have essentially handed him a way to get his needs met that is value-based and will help him get educated on its use. He will have the tools to move forward and make better decisions that are more in alignment with his/your values. He no longer has a reason to steal.
By following these four steps, we can create consequences that will help teach and grow our children as human beings rather than creating a new generation of fear-induced rule followers (breakers).
When we create consequences that speak to real-life situations and our values, we create an opportunity for learning. We remove the need the child may feel to engage in the activity again. That is our role as parents; to guide and teach. We aren’t meant to be supreme dictators, handing down mandates and punishments. Beyond that fact that this isn’t our right or function, it’s also incredibly unproductive for the health of our children and our societies.
How has your child’s behavior challenged you? How do you feel about the way you responded to the behavior? Does it feel good now, as you look back on it, or do you feel uneasy about it? How effective have your methods been for your child?