Consequences: A Key to Effective Discipline

In discussing parenting and effective discipline, we established how it differs from punishment. Effective discipline teaches, encourages, motivates and intentionally imposes restrictions to limit potentially harmful behaviors. Consequences are key to effective discipline and valuable for parents to understand.

Disciplinary consequences can either be natural or imposed

Young black family
Consequences are key to effective discipline and valuable for parents to understand.

A natural consequence happens as a natural result of a particular action or inaction.

Therefore, it does not require effort or a decision to accomplish a result. For instance, if a child does not wear a coat on a cold day, she becomes chilled.

An imposed consequence may occur because of an action or inaction; however, someone must define and implement a condition as a response. When disciplining, imposed consequences should be logical. That is, the consequences should somehow relate to the behavior and what is to be taught.

An example of an imposed disciplinary consequence might be when a teenager drives the family car without following the rule of leaving a note that he took the car or for what purpose. As a result, the imposed consequence restricts him from using the car for anything but school-related activities until he comes up with a clear plan, satisfactory to his parents, of how he will ensure this breech does not happen again.

Father and daughter game time
Imposed consequences used occasionally as rewards tend to encourage and motivate.

Imposed consequences can also be used to reward behaviors that are positive and desirable.

If a child completes homework without the usual bickering, she may be rewarded with an additional specified time to spend in a way she enjoys. Imposed consequences used occasionally as rewards tend to encourage and motivate.

Unfortunately, some parents also use imposed consequences as punishment. Parents may yell, scream, blame, shame and then levy the imposed consequence. Using consequences to punish is unhelpful and can produce the opposite behavior of what is desired. Additionally, the result tends to be negative and hurtful to the parent/child relationship.

Research shows the value of using consequences appropriately

Research indicates that any punishment using anger, guilt and shame does not teach a child to do better. True change usually comes when someone’s behavior encounters natural or imposed consequences: pain or loss of money, possessions, or things he or she enjoys, or time missed with people he or she values. Consequences are the recommended form of discipline that parents and caregivers should use.

Breaking out the piggy bank
Consequences are most effective when they motivate a child to assume responsibility for the problem.

Why is appropriate use of consequences effective? Consequences transfer the need to be responsible from the parent to the child. They are most effective when they motivate a child to assume responsibility for the problem.

The goal is not to control the children or make them do what you want. Rather, the goal is to give the children the choice to implement their solution, and as a result of their choice, realize difficult realities. (Depending on the circumstance, a parent may find it helpful to discuss and  explore potential results with the child before inviting him or her to implement a solution.)

We as parents need to make sure that consequences never be used to imply or threaten a loss of love or emotional connection. The child should only be concerned with a possible loss of freedom or the possibility of experiencing something he or she really might not like.

What happens when a child’s behavior damages trust?

Certain behaviors may impact our sense of trust, safety, fairness and connection in a relationship. If a child lies, cheats, steals or otherwise lets us down, it usually does impact our relationship with them. Informing a child of this impact and expecting the child to take responsibility for the damaging behavior can be appropriate and healthy.

In addition to the impact to his or her parents,  it is important that the child learn about his or her impact to others. For this reason, it is helpful to describe the relational injury and to use it a way to teach the child to take responsibility for the damage he or she has done. First, an apology or a way to make amends would be expected. This is how trust in a relationship begins to be restored.

There is much more to say about using consequences. I will continue to talk about this essential part of effective discipline in my next post.

For now, think about how you as a parent or caregiver can use consequences as an effective means to teach, train and encourage your child in those moments of testing limits.

Gerry Vassar, President and CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Some information taken from Preventing Violence through Effective Discipline, 2006, Diane Wagenhals. Licensed Materials. All rights reserved.

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