Parenting: Have Consequences with “Bite”

January 12th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Establishing reasonable expectations for your children in all aspects of their lives, including school, home, and family, is essential for raising children who are responsible, respectful, successful, and happy. But expectations without consequences are like a dog with a loud bark, but no bite; scary at first, but ultimately harmless. Consequences are what cause your children to live up to your expectations. Now, I don’t expect you to actually bite your children to get them to behave appropriately nor does using that metaphor intend to suggest that the consequences you create should hurt your children in any way. But the consequences you connect to your expectations should be just unpleasant enough that, when they are confronted with the option of living up to or failing at your expectations, they decide that the benefits of doing what you expect outweighs the costs.

Unfortunately these days, many parents seem to have a hard time with consequences at two levels. First, they don’t establish any consequences, perhaps because that way they won’t have to actually enforce them. Second, many parents establish consequences with the best of intentions, but aren’t good at following through. The reality is that playing the role of “tough” parent is difficult. It takes time when many family’s lives are already overflowing with things to do. It takes energy that harried parents may not have. Following through with consequences can create conflict and ill feelings, interfering with the goal of many parents these days to be friends with their children (which they shouldn’t be in the first place!). And kids these days are really good negotiators, possessing the ability to talk their parents out of administering the full consequence. Promises of better behavior in the future and demonstrations of love can seduce parents into letting their children off the hook (bad idea!). And, the bottom line is that not following through with the consequence is just the easiest and most expedient thing to do.

Having consequences doesn’t have to turn you into a Kim Jong-Il or an big, green ogre (like Shrek without the cuteness). Consequences just mean that you are letting your children know that there are some pretty darned reasonable things (at least to someone who is not a child) that you expect of them and that they must learn to become a functioning member of your family and our society.

You can actually avoid the dictator or ogre labels by including your children in the discussion of expectations and consequences. Clearly state your expectations and establish and communicate the consequences of your children’s meeting or not meeting those expectations. Explain why you are setting the expectations and the consequences so your children can see the benefit of acting in accordance with those expectations. This discussion helps ensure clear communication and understanding, and encourages open dialogue between you and your children.

Ask your children for input into this process, particularly in coming up with fair consequences. If your children help create the consequences, they’ll have a hard time arguing against them when they face your “wrath” because they failed to meet an expectation. This fairness allows your children to justify their punishment when they don’t meet the expectations and encourages them to internalize the expectations because the consequences are not so severe that they feel forced to comply.

Consequences must also be meaningful to your children. They need to see the personal value of meeting the expectations. External benefits can include parental approval or receiving some predetermined reward (for example, receiving their allowance). Internal value can mean the intrinsic satisfaction of doing the right thing. If you explain the rationale behind the expectation, create a fair consequence and emphasize that they have the power to choose whether to meet or violate the expectation, then they’re more likely to live up to your expectations because they feel ownership of both the expectation and consequence.

Parents who enforce excessive or arbitrary consequences risk anger, resentment, resistance, and rebellion in their children. If you establish a consequence that they view as harsh and extreme, your children may meet the expectation for a while out of fear of punishment, but will likely, at some point, rebel against it. Most harmfully, they won’t internalize and accept the expectation as their own and will likely cease their efforts at meeting the expectation as soon as they are out of your control.

At the same time, consequences that are insufficient for the transgression are equally ineffective. In other words, the punishment should fit the crime. Observes parenting author John Rosemond, “The fact is, the outrageous offense requires an equally outrageous response. Today’s parents are often reluctant to employ outrageous consequences—and by this I definitely do not mean hurtful, cruel, or mean—because professional psychobabblers have intimidated them into believing that outrageous discipline is psychologically harmful. Big Consequences cause children great discomfort and inconvenience, which is precisely the idea. But are they psychologically harmful? Not unless you think that improved behavior is bad.”

You need to then firmly and consistently adhere to the expectations and consequences that you establish. If you don’t administer the consequence fully, they will come to believe that the threatened consequences will not be meted out next time. Every time a child is let off without a consequence for failing to meet an expectation, the value of the expectation is lost. In other words, your children must learn that you mean business!

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see some of his television interviews.)

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