One of the trickiest things as a parent is figuring out how to supportively navigate non-negotiable behaviors. If we grew up with a punishment and reward model, it can be hard to break away from that foundation. When our children do something that we know we would have been punished for, we feel pressured to enforce consequences. We may know we don’t want to spank our kids, but we feel like we’ve got to do something. So we look for consequences that are less harsh.
Most of us want consequences to be concrete and deliverable. This often means that our consequences are actually punishments, we’re just calling them by a different name. Natural consequences, which are actually quite effective, may feel too permissive. In reality, since natural consequences are the direct result of a child’s own actions, they are powerful tools for learning. When allowed to experience natural consequences, children experience the impact of their actions directly.
Natural consequences offer the most potential for learning, but there are times when they’re not a realistic or safe option. If the natural consequence involves bodily harm to our kids or anyone else, we’ve got to find another solution. So we are still left with the question, what do we do instead?
In these situations, many parents turn to time-outs and revoking privileges. These are punishments that don’t feel too extreme, and seem to work – at least at first. But when we take this kind of action, we often forget to address the bigger issue triggering a behavior.
When we put our kids in time-out, we miss the opportunity to teach them the skills they are lacking. Taking away privileges can be confusing unless the privilege is directly related to the behavior. Plus, imposing consequences like this makes it hard to be consistent. Eventually we run out of things to take away and time-outs lose their significance.
So what do we do instead?
When the consequences that you are coming up with aren’t really relevant and are landing more like punishments, but the natural consequences are too severe, what’s the alternative? What’s the balance? How do you find a logical consequence that is consistently enforceable?
Here’s a step by step example.
Step 1: Intervene and stop the behavior.
If you’re child is hitting their friend, the very first step is to stop the behavior. Prioritize keeping the other child safe.
Step 2: Explain.
Explain to your child why you’re intervening. You can use language like, “I can’t let you hit your friend, it’s not safe. You were playing with that toy and they took it from you. It makes sense to be angry.” Make sure you call out the behavior, the problem with it, and acknowledge the experience that led to the behavior.
Step 3: Reiterate.
After you validate their experience, come back to the behavior. In this case, you might say, “It’s never okay to hit.”
Step 4: Offer alternatives.
This is so important! This is what’s missing when we rely on punishments and rewards. Whatever the behavior is, it’s happening because they don’t have the skills yet to resolve their problem in a more appropriate way. When we offer alternatives such as, “Next time you could say, ‘I was still using that, can I have it back?’” or “If your friend isn’t listening to you, you can always come ask me for help,” we help them build the skills they need to be able to navigate similar situations in the future independently, safely, and appropriately.
Step 5: If the behavior continues, implement a logical consequence.
This is where consequences come in, but we’re talking true logical consequences, not punishments. A logical consequence is related to the child’s actions, but imposed by the parent or caregiver. It’s intended to support the child’s learning and growth. In the case of repeated physical conflict, you have a couple of options. One logical consequence would be to change activities. You might also position yourself nearby so that you’re better able to help. An example of the language you might use would be: “I can see you are having a hard time with this. You are getting so angry/frustrated that you’re hitting your friend. Since this is so hard, I’m going to be nearby to help you if you get frustrated/let’s choose a different activity that isn’t so frustrating.”
Do you see the distinction? Each of these consequences is imposed with safety in mind. We are identifying and providing the kind of help our child needs in that moment to be safe with their body.
Stepping away from “real” consequences takes time and practice. Sometimes a little outside support can be the push we need to make the change long enough to see the impact. As a coach, that’s what I’m here for, and all of my work with clients starts with a free consultation call. It gives us a chance to connect directly and determine if working together would be a good fit, and it gives me a chance to give you something you can take back and put into practice with your family right away.