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The art of setting consequences

An indispensable tool for parents-if it’s used properly

The art of setting consequences

If your sweet, adorable child has reached the age of “No!”, it’s time for you to learn the humane and necessary art of setting consequences. Social worker Amy Morin offers guidelines to cultivate obedience in your children without harsh punishment or ineffectual threats. These rules can be applied to children of any age, but for special cases you may encounter with older children, also see our article on setting consequences for teens

Make clear statements. A consequence is your stated intention to take action if your child misbehaves. “If you do X, then Y will happen.” It's not fair to impose a consequence when your child does not yet know the rules. The times to state future consequences are:

  • when you anticipate a possible problem
  • when your child is refusing to follow your instructions
  • when your child has misbehaved, and you want to prevent a repeat

Always follow through. Once you've articulated a consequence, and then your child misbehaves in the way you warned against, you must follow through, or your future rules will have no effect. Therefore, be careful about what consequences you select.

Choosing consequences. The stated result of a child's action should be:

A logical result of the misbehavior. If your child refuses to eat a nourishing dinner, withholding dessert is a natural result. Threatening to take away a toy would be unconnected and confusing.

In proportion to the offense. A 10-minute timeout might be appropriate for a child who shouts at you disrespectfully, but a week without TV would be excessive and would cause long-term resentment.

Something that does not penalize the parents. If you're counting on a playdate to give yourself a respite from childcare, and you threaten to take away the playdate, you are going to suffer, so it's not a good idea. Canceling events is usually not a good consequence to choose.

Avoid shaming. Never impose a consequence that causes shame or ridicule. A consequence should be a learning tool, designed to make children understand that misbehavior causes logical results. When kids experience the operation of cause and effect, they learn, in the long run, to practice self-discipline.

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