Children thrive on boundaries and limits. Children even thrive on (gasp!) appropriate consequences when needed. If done the right way, children will actually benefit from rules and structure. The easy part is coming up with the limits and consequences for your home. The hard part is executing those limits and consequences consistently and in a positive, calm, respectful yet firm manner. My intention is to teach tools for effective parenting using a positive approach that also includes a balance between praise and consequence. What I want to focus on is how to set the stage for behavioral success with your child, how to set up and teach behavioral expectations, how to praise your child for desirable behavior and how to provide appropriate consequences for undesirable behavior.
As parents, we do our very best to provide a positive environment for our children filled with nurturing love, unconditional regard, and positivity. And what if I told you that there is a balance between all of these things and also providing appropriate limits and consequences when necessary? If a child lacks parent engagement and structure, you as a parent will most likely become frustrated, irritated, and angry. Your child, on the other hand, will start making their own rules and may even start setting limits with you instead of the other way around. Children need us as parents to teach them the difference between right and wrong and guide them through decision making. Children are constantly in learning mode and are going to make mistakes. This is expected, yet we shouldn’t make excuses for their behavior just because they are “too young to know better” and pretend that when they get older they will make better decisions. They might, but often times, if a child gets away with no consequences at an early age, their behavior only worsens with time. Children model what they learn and are molded beginning with conception. Yes, children start learning how to behave in their environment even in the womb. And there are natural consequences for all of our actions and behaviors. The sooner a child learns how you want them to behave, the less you’ll have to teach them, as they grow older. The hope, as a parent, is that your child learns from their mistakes and tries not to repeat them.
I believe there is a misunderstanding among parents that positive parenting requires little or no consequences. I hear many parents tell me from the parenting consultations I provide that they do not want to be “mean” to their child or make their child feel unloved if they have to provide a consequence. This is a false perception I see on a professional and personal level. For the last 8 years I have worked with hundreds of children and their families on positive and effective parenting techniques. For the last 5 years I have worked as a program manager for a non-profit implementing a positive behavior support program in over 20 elementary schools training administrators, faculty, and teachers how to effectively discipline students using positive behavior support techniques. Some believe that when a child makes a wrong choice they need a punitive type of punishment. This isn’t the case and is often not necessary or even what he child needs. Consequences do not necessarily mean punishment. Others often minimize a child’s negative behavior and often overlook wrong choices and or do not provide any limits, boundaries, and or consequences. The most common reason I hear why this doesn’t happen is due to fear. However, not providing consequences could possibly lead to more and more negative behavior from the child. Believe it or not, there is a middle ground.
If your child hurts another child how do you respond as a parent? Do you ignore it? Do you downplay the behavior and tell your child “I’m sorry you were frustrated. I know you are trying to learn your own strength” and tell the other parent of the hurt child that your child didn’t mean it? Or do you kindly and calmly pull your child aside privately, as not to shame or embarrass them, and tell them that what they did was not acceptable and provide an appropriate consequence? Believe it or not, if you ignore your child’s misbehavior and or downplay it and not provide a consequence, your child learns that they can “get away with” negative behavior and will actually increase their negative behavior. You may think you are protecting your child from crying or negativity, but your child will actually have more respect for you as the parent if you show them that you love them and also pay attention to their behavior and are teaching them how to be safe, respectful and responsible.
As parents we make mistakes all the time. I know I do. None of us are perfect and we try our best. That being said, sometimes we make bad choices, but that doesn’t make us bad parents. We all have bad days. We are human. In the same respect, a child’s bad choices often get wrongly lumped into labeling the child as a bad child. I believe children are innately good and research has shown that the majority of children desire to please adults, comply, and do the right thing. It is our jobs as parents to recognize when our child does something correctly to praise them and even reward them for making a good choice. It is also our job to set boundaries and limits with our children and educate them on what is right and what is wrong and provide appropriate consequences if they make a poor choice. When we use decision making as a teaching moment, children learn what is appropriate, desirable behavior and what is inappropriate, undesirable behavior.
Educating your child and setting guidelines for behavior expectations in advance is often one of the best ways to ensure positive behavior. When a child is non-compliant, then we can re-teach our children and remind them what is expected of them in a calm, positive, and firm way. They still might receive a consequence, but they will also not be shamed for their behavior and certainly will not be withheld love or be burdended a grudge. When you are providing the consequence, make sure to not take something away that they were given as a reward. Also, make sure the punishment fits the crime and the age, especially if it’s a time out. Some children need time-outs to re-focus, self-soothe, and even regulate their emotions. You can also try a time-in, which requires the child to stay by your side as they help you with a task (ie: putting the dishes away together). Consequences need not be severe and or for long. I suggest not putting a child in a time-out for longer than their age (ie: 2 minutes for a 2-year-old) and a consequence that lasts longer than that moment or that day (unless they are adolescents, but that is a whole other blog for another time)! For example, I wouldn’t take the TV away for a week. The child most likely won’t understand or remember what they did wrong for that long. Taking something like the TV away for 30 minutes or even the rest of the day should make your message clear enough. Once your child is calm, in case they were escalated in some way, you can calmly talk to your child about what they did and how to do it better next time. Try not to have a rational conversation with your child if they are escalated in any way. Let them know why they are being given a consequence and then follow through with the consequence, and then you can have a follow up conversation for review of the rules, expectations, and why they were given a consequence. Consequences can be solely a verbal teaching moment, too. For example, saying, “what is the rule about (blank)? What you did is not ok. It wasn’t safe or respectful. I would like for you to apologize.” You are still communicating what choice was undesirable and addressing the behavior firsthand.
I suggest coming up with a list of consequences with your child in advance. Do not pull the rug from under your child and surprise them with a consequence in the heat of the moment. They might say “I didn’t know that wasn’t ok” and they might actually be telling the truth. Children need a lot of reminders. Some people believe that children should “just know” how to behave, but they actually need us to teach them, over and over and over again. It is best to teach them your expectations in advance. Consequences can be set as early as early toddlerhood. Know what motivates your child and what your trump card is and only play it when you have to, knowing that there is nothing worse you can take away once you use it.
When you are teaching your behavior expectations and or providing a consequence, stay calm, use eye contact, and get to the same eye level with them. Make sure they are looking at you before you teach or talk to them. If they aren’t looking, they will most likely not be listening. When your child makes a positive choice, praise them! If they make a choice that needs teaching and correction, provide an appropriate consequence, delivered in a calm, firm manner. And remember, you can still provide positive parenting and unconditional love and also provide limits, boundaries, structure, and consequences.