All kinds of water toys lie seemingly ownerless beside the pool.
Archie picks up a Super Soaker, and immediately another kid yells, “Heyyyyy! That’s miiiiine!”
Archie says, “Oh, sorry. Can I play with it for a minute and I’ll give it right back?” The other kid says, “Sure,” and runs off with the rest of the toys he’s jacked from the toddlers in the baby pool.
Every parent within earshot is awed by this beautiful display of social-skills. And Archie gets to play with the biggest soaker he’s ever seen.
That’s what we call a positive natural consequence. When it feeds an appropriate behavior, such as Archie’s good manners, it’s fantastic.
Archie’s mom could further reinforce Archie’s triumph, by complimenting him on how he handled the situation, and perhaps reward him with 5 points for his behavior chart.
But what if Archie hadn’t made such a good choice?
What options would his mother have had to encourage appropriate behavior next time? That’s what this article is going to examine.
Archie in an Alternate Universe
So what if alternate-universe Archie had been tired, hungry and grumpy?
He might have looked at the alleged owner of the Super Soaker and said “No, it’s NOT yours!” He might have walked off with it, and the other child may have followed him, grabbed the soaker and pushed him down.
That would be a negative natural consequence.
Negative natural consequences are pretty self-explanatory:
- A child refuses to put on a coat, so he’s temporarily cold.
- A child plays rocket ship with her ice cream. It falls on the ground.
- A child won’t brush his teeth and gets cavities (Noooooo!)
As long as health and safety aren’t significantly compromised, negative natural consequences can be great learning opportunities. They are the “I told you so” moments—though we should refrain from saying it, and just let the consequence do the teaching. (But think it all you want!)
Of course natural consequences can also work in the wrong direction.
For example, my child sometimes puts together an outfit and hairdo so crazy that people are forced to react to it all day. Of course, they’re nice people, so they say, “Wow, what an outfit!” Then she comes home bolstered by her decision to wear what essentially amounted to three randomly separate outfits.
Aside from tripling my dirty laundry, this isn’t a big deal. But you get my point.
Why Time Out Fails
For many behaviors there are no immediate natural consequences (or no consequences we want to allow to play out).
That’s when we often turn to imposed or punitive consequences.
Punitive consequences include time-out, extra chores, taking away privileges, writing sentences, spanking, no recess, or denying access to certain toys or activities.
These are the kinds of behavior consequences teachers and parents can impose across the board to any child. No muss, no fuss. You violate a rule, you write sentences. You throw a toy, you go time-out.
My issue with punitive consequences like these is that they activate the power dynamic: Parent as feared ruler.
These punishments are usually unrelated to the behavior. As a result, they put the focus on the punisher, (“You’re so mean! This isn’t fair!”) They take the focus away from the child’s responsibility for the choice he or she made.
Effective behavior-shaping is about teaching a child to think about the situation and to have the skills to make a different choice the next time.
This type of punishment also takes the emphasis away from remediation and instruction, and it normalizes the message that submission and obedience are what we want. Sure, we want that to a degree, but what if there’s a way to achieve the same result and make it feel better for everyone?
The other problem with unrelated imposed consequences, is the effectiveness can wear off pretty quickly. Can you show me a kid who goes to time-out more than two times per day and is still devastated by the experience? I’ve never seen one, and I’ve met a LOT of time-out frequent fliers in my day.
What to Try Instead of Time-out for Children
If you infrequently impose unrelated punitive consequences, like time-out, and they result in lasting behavioral change, then rock on, Boss. (In fact, I’ll eventually get around to writing tips for time-out.)
But what I often hear is: “Nothing works anymore. I send him to time out. I’ve taken away TV, video games, play dates, football. He just doesn’t care.”
For these (or any) parents, I recommend logical punitive consequences.
Logical punitive consequences are similar to natural consequences in that the cause and effect are linked. Creating logical consequences takes a little more creativity and improvisation, but in my experience, it’s the best way to teach the behavior we want and make a lasting impression.
When we go the extra mile to generate unique and potent consequences, we accomplish several goals:
- We place the responsibility for the behavior with the child.
- We require active remediation, which requires effort and inconveniences the child.
- We reinforce the idea that actions have related consequences.
Here are a few examples of logical punitive consequences:
A child’s mom has to ask/tell him to put his shoes on a dozen times. When he finally begins to comply, he screams at her that he can’t find the shoes. So, that afternoon she requires him to “practice” putting on his shoes and getting into the car 10 times before he can watch TV.
A child is slow to wake up one morning. Then she’s nasty and mean, and makes everyone late for school and work. So she’s required to go to bed 30 minutes early for the rest of the week.
After receiving a two-minute warning, a child refuses to leave the playground and his father has to retrieve him. So when they get home, dad makes him “practice” coming when he’s called 20 or 30 times.
Logical consequences like these can incorporate a lot of great elements. The behavioral teaching tool called rehearsal is particularly good. That’s when we have a child practice a skill over and over so it becomes like muscle memory.
I’ve had students who literally needed to practice being near another student without “messing” with them. So I would have them walk back and forth past each other politely nodding, without touching.
Restitution activities are another good thing to incorporate into logical consequences. Spending time taping a math worksheet back together springs to mind. (Bear in mind this only works, if the child would rather spend the time doing something else.)
You might say, “Aren’t these just creative ways of making kids pay the price for their behavior?” Well, yes. Creative and constructive, and full of love.
We Are Agents of Karma
The trick in making logical punitive consequences work, is that you level these karmic assists in a neutral, maybe even friendly way. Like, “Hey, this is what happens when you show me you need to practice self-control.”
Your attitude is important for not triggering the obedience and power dynamic. Rather than blaming and shaming, we want our logical consequences to feel just like a natural consequence they brought on themselves.
To be clear, I’m not talking about being light and easy in response to dealbreaker behaviors. I think aggression and cruelty are times to bring out the firm, all-business voice to go along with that karmic assist. But for the day-to-day, aggravating kid stuff, I think an attitude of ease is the best way to go. I’m pretty sure it has added years to my life.
Like, “Hey man, you made this choice to ignore my direction to turn off the TV four times when you know the rules are to listen and follow directions. My job as your parent is to teach you the skills you need. So if you want to be able to earn screen time back tomorrow, I need you to show me you can follow my directions when I give you these extra chores to do.”
Ta-da! If he balks, you say, “OK, you’re showing me you don’t want to earn that screen time back. That seems weird. Let’s give this a try.You can either lose all of your screen time tomorrow, or show me now that you can follow directions by cleaning the hall bathroom. That’s your choice.”
Behavior Modification Doesn’t Have to Be a Bitch Fest
I promise, if you are open, neutral, and relaxed, they will take the consequence and be ready for a clean slate the vast majority of the time. You’re also showing your child that their behavior doesn’t control your mood when you keep a light vibe.
You can even praise and encourage them in the chores. “Oh, great! That’s what I’m talking about. You’ll be back to your regular screen time tomorrow, no problem!”
They’re already losing screen time, so if you can make it light-hearted, go for it. Or if you can have connection time, while working around the house together, that’s great. It confuses them in a good way!
But can he earn back the rest of that same show tonight? No. That’s part of making the consequence a powerful memory.
Here are a two more important benefits to coming up with creative logical consequences:
- Your kids have NO IDEA what you might do. So they’re not weighing a choice to misbehave with a standard, prescribed consequence.
- They know you care. Even if they hate the consequence (which is the idea), you’re engaged with them. You aren’t hurting or wounding them. On some level, they know you wouldn’t go to the trouble if you didn’t care.
You can still have fun and teach a skill. Here’s the thing. IF your kids are missing out on TV time or playtime because they have to rehearse getting into the van 20 times in a row, just as though it were a school morning, you don’t have be glum and grouchy about it.
Laugh. Joke about how crazy it is. Praise them for doing exactly what you expect them to do every single morning. They’re already losing screen time. Use this as a way to make your point and have some fun connection, too. (They really can’t help themselves. Kids love a good time.)
As a teacher and a parent, I’m pretty strict. But kids have always loved me because I give them two things in spades:
- Good times
When you can do both at once, it’s downright magical.
A Few Final Thoughts
Think about which consequences you use AND whether or not they’re helping change your kids’ behaviors. Think about what you can teach. Teaching is the most important element in behavioral remediation.
OF COURSE we want this to be constructive. OF COURSE we don’t want to be mean or cruel. No way. We want to be creative.
I take delight in finding new and exciting ways to make children wish they’d followed directions. I like to think of myself as a consequence savant. Or Glenda the Good Bad Witch.
Please, PLEASE share your amazing creative consequence stories with me! And please share this article with other parents, if you found it helpful.
About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents with in-person and remote child behavior consulting.