All children misbehave from time to time. The goal of discipline is to teach the child appropriate behaviors, but sometimes it can be difficult for parents to choose an effective and appropriate approach to their child’s misbehavior.
Threats and punishment may be effective in managing the child’s behavior in the short-term, but these approaches do not tend to teach the child to make proper choices and accept the consequences. Consequences are different from threats and punishment in that they are not random, do not negatively affect parent-child relationship and do not hurt the child (causing the child to withdraw, or react with anger or revenge).
Two of the more effective approaches to discipline are natural and logical consequences. Natural consequences occur when parents do not intervene; for example, allowing a child who refuses to wear gloves in the winter to walk from home to the car without wearing gloves – the child’s hands will get cold and he or she might choose to wear gloves the next time. In these situations, it is important to abstain from lecturing (i.e. “I told you so’), but instead empathize with the child’s feelings and assist the child with problem solving for next time.
Natural consequences can only be used when the consequence to a behavior occurs quickly and safely. In situations in which consequences to behaviors are too dangerous (i.e. running into a street) or too delayed (i.e. not doing homework) to be effective, logical consequences should be used instead.
Logical consequences have a logical connection to the misbehavior, teach children to make choices and accept responsibility for their behavior. Logical consequences work best when they are agreed upon in advance. During a calm moment, talk to your child about a recent incident when an undesirable behavior occurred; sometimes it is possible to gain insight into the reasons the child misbehaved by talking to them. State specifically what behavior is undesirable and why. Separate disapproval of the child from disapproval of the behavior (i.e. it’s not the child who has been “bad”, but rather the behavior that has been undesirable). Emphasize problem-solving approach and encourage the child to generate possible consequences that are reasonable, rational and related to the behavior. Although the parent should emphasize cooperation with the child, it is ultimately up to the parent to decide on the appropriate consequences and inform the child of them in advance.
When a situation arises, remind the child of the agreed upon consequences in simple terms (i.e. “if ___ then ___”); this should not be done in a form of an ultimatum or punishment, but rather in a kind and consistent manner. A child, knowing the consequences for his or her actions, then has a choice to behave in a desirable or undesirable way. It is important to remember that the parent does not punish the child, but rather reinforces consequences for the behavioral choices made by the child.
The most effective consequences occur immediately (there is a clear behavior-consequence connection), are relatively short (i.e. not grounding a child for weeks), developmentally appropriate and consistent (occur each time a behavior occurs). The parent should agree only to the consequences that he or she is willing to carry out consistently (for example, if a consequence for misbehavior in a store is an immediate return home, the parent must be prepared to stop shopping mid-way and leave the store with the child).
When following through with a consequence be kind and firm, do not engage in an argument or negotiation, and let the child know that they will have another opportunity to behave differently. It is equally important to have consequences for desirable behavior as well in order to increase chances that the desirable behavior will be repeated next time.
As noted above, consistency with disciplinary approaches is important in order for the child to behave consistently across different contexts. For example, when children behave differently with parents and grandparents, it is often a reflection of different consequences to their behaviors from different caregivers. In such situations, it might be helpful for all caregivers to agree to implement the same consequences for the child’s behavior.