Teach Children about Choices and Consequences
Every parent has those moments when the urge to yell pulses within us. We think, “Why can’t my kids just listen to me?” and it seems that our attempts to be calm and kind are useless. But if the kids won’t listen, how we can teach them, direct them, or help them? Isn’t it our job to teach the importance of being on time, chewing with their mouths closed, or the injustice of stealing toys? Parenting can be rough, especially when we feel trapped in a cycle of yelling and frustration. What choices and consequences are happening?
Luckily, there is another way!
Parents have a responsibility to nurture and teach their children. Allow me to emphasize the word teach. Effective parenting is about more than punishment. It’s more than demanding obedience and managing through fear. Parenting is about teaching. In my counseling sessions, I have found that the most effective way to help families get out of the yelling cycle is by encouraging choices and consequences. The word “consequence” doesn’t have to imply something bad. It’s just what happens as a result of their choice. Consequences can be good too!
For example, your 4yr old has made a mess in her room, and she’s ignored you the last three times that you’ve asked her to clean her room. You could get all mad, yell at her, and punish her – but then you’re punishing out of a desire to be obeyed. It’s all about you and your authority, read more about the effects of authoritative parenting here. A more effective way is to teach your 4yr old the importance of keeping a clean room and showing respect for other people as well. It’s not about your authority; instead it is about her trusting you to guide her as a parent. Your requests serve a helpful purpose – in this case, teaching the importance of cleanliness, respect for the home, self-responsibility, and following parental directions.
As parents, we need our kids to follow our directions. We really do! So teach them appropriate behavior using choices and consequences. This is a technique borrowed from play therapy called “limit setting” that helps children assume responsibility for their own behavior.
Here’s how I use choices and consequences with my kids:
“I’ve asked you twice to put your shoes on so we can take your brother to school. We need to hurry. If you choose to not put your shoes on, then you choose to walk to the car barefoot. Please decide because we need to get in the car.”
“Couches are not for jumping on. You can choose to jump on the floor or the outside on the trampoline. But if you continue jumping on the couch, then you’ll also choose to sit in time out.”
“Please stop banging your fork into the table. Mommy and Daddy have both asked you to stop and sit politely. If you choose to continue banging your fork, then we will take it away and you’ll only have your spoon.”
“Honey, you need to get dressed so we can go to the grocery store. I need to buy food for dinner tonight. I’ve asked you twice to pick some clothes out. If you choose not to pick, then I will pick some clothes for you.”
As you can see from these examples, it’s important to point out to your kiddo that he/she has choices. They are choosing their own consequence – happy or less happy. I try to explain to my reasoning to my kids, even the little bitty ones, because I want them to eventually understand socially appropriate behavior. I maintain my role as the parent, but I also allow them choice. I am conscious of the consequences I assign to their poor choices in order to keep the focus on teaching, rather than just getting angry. And I always make an effort to sit with them after a couple minutes in time-out and talk with them. In time-out we talk about what their bad choice was, and why it wasn’t helpful, and what they could do differently next time. That way, even a time-out can be a teaching tool for kids, plus some time to calm down.
The other important thing for parents to remember is the follow through. If you tell them you the consequence of their choice is to lose a toy for a couple hours, then you have to follow through and keep that toy. If you say that they will have to go to bed early or miss out on dessert, then you have to follow through. Remind them of their choice earlier in the day and the consequence, “Remember earlier today when you choose to hit your sister, after Mommy told you to stop? Remember I said no ice cream if you kept hitting her? You choose to hit her again, and so you chose no ice cream after dinner.” The follow through is important – so only pronounce a consequence that is age appropriate, meaningful to that kid, and follow-through-able.
How do you know if the consequence is age appropriate, meaningful, and follow-through-able? Think about your kid. There is a big difference between the comprehension of a 2yr old and a 5 yr old. Children don’t learn the ability to empathize with others until around age 5, but younger children can be taught that it’s not nice to make other children cry. School-age children can comprehend the word “respect” and what socially appropriate behavior looks like. Parents help reinforce the difference between good choices and poor choices by assigning consequences to poor behavior such as hitting, stealing toys, throwing dishes off the table, or running into the street. Another point for parents to consider is the concept of time. For example, telling a 2yr old that her choices will cause her to miss a party next week is unrealistic. Little kids’ concept of time is very limited, and “next week” means nothing. Consequences that happen immediately or within a few hours work best, for every age group.
Here are some more examples:
“I asked you to put the Kindle away a long time ago. If you choose to keep playing, then you are choosing to lose the Kindle for the rest of the day. Please put away the Kindle, and follow directions.”
“Buddy, I need to you try one bite of your chicken. We want you to grow big and strong, and chicken will help you. Please take one bite. If you choose to eat some chicken, then you can stay up later and read some books. If you choose not to eat your chicken, then you choose to just go to bed now. What would you like to do?”
My son was a picky eater for years, and so often he would choose bedtime instead of trying new foods. Luckily he loved fruits and vegetables and peanut butter to sustain him! He would eat everything on his plate except the meat, and then he would choose bedtime. Later we changed our plan to giving him a peanut butter sandwich if he would take one bite, and that seemed to work. He still ate one bite of something new, and he still put calories into his little belly. A few months ago he finally started eating new foods and meat on his own. We still encourage him, but he’s getting sooo much better at just eating. Teaching him to eat a variety of foods has been a process, but he’s learned! And that’s the whole parenting thing, right? To model and teach appropriate behavior to our kids, with the hope that they will someday choose to also make good choices on their own.
When kids do make good choices, praise them! Compliment them! Remember, the whole goal is to encourage good choices, so give those good choices attention too.
“Thank you for listening to Mommy and buckling your seat belt. That was so helpful.”
“You shared your donut with your sister! Yea! That was so kind, and your sister is smiling so happily. Thank you for choosing to be a nice brother.”
As we teach our children about choices and we reinforce the difference between good and bad choices, parenting becomes a bit easier. (Sure, there will still be stressful days where every kid goes to bed early because you are sooo done for the day. But those rough days will be fewer.) Perhaps you’ll feel more calm and collected each day. Perhaps you’ll feel relieved to let your older children handle some responsibility for their own schedules. Perhaps you’ll catch more sweet, complimentary moments with each kiddo, and you’ll enjoy praising their positive behavior. Allow your self to enjoy those sweet moments of parenting.
Good luck! Let me know of any questions or helpful hints that bond together your family in the comment section. I love hearing from my readers! Thank you!