Families, communities, and nations are strengthened when parents successfully apply negative consequences for misbehavior and positive rewards for good behavior. Children and teenagers learn as they make everyday choices and experience the consequences of their choices. Parents who apply consequences correctly can help their children to learn responsible behavior. Much of this post is based on “Session Nine Applying Consequences” in the Strengthening the Family parent education course.
Freedom of choice and agency give all people the right to make choices. However, no one can choose the consequences for their choices. When people make bad choices, they receive negative consequences. When they make good choices, they receive positive rewards. When people keep the commandments of God, work hard, and obey the laws of society, they have greater opportunities to be productive and successful. If they are lazy or disobedient, they are not prepared to succeed.
According to William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, the actions of many parents encourage self-centeredness and irresponsibility in their children (Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in Our Homes and Schools). These parents attempt to bolster their children’s self-esteem by telling them how terrific they are without requiring anything substantive from them (Greater Expectations). This unmerited praise often results in lazy, demanding, disrespectful, undisciplined children and teenagers. Permissive parents require little of their children, providing few or no consequences for disobedience or failure to perform.
For my lesson this week, I watched two videos about applying consequences. One was titled “Teaching Not Punishing: Effective Negative Consequences,” and the other was titled “Positive Behavior Strategy: Effective Positive Rewards.” Even though the purposes of negative consequences and positive rewards are different, they have the same components to make consequences effective. Here are five steps to remember when applying consequences: (1) Immediate: Whether you apply a negative consequence or a positive reward, it should be done immediately or on the same day. (2) Degree or Size: The negative consequence or the positive reward should match the size of the unwanted behavior or the desired behavior. (3) Consistent: The negative consequence or the positive reward should be given each time that the behavior happens. (4) Important: The negative consequence or the positive reward should be meaningful to the child. (5) Variation: Whether it is a negative consequence or a positive reward, there should be a variety of consequences or rewards for a given behavior.
According to the lesson material, there are some principles that can help parents know how to use consequences appropriately with their children.
1. Recognize and Acknowledge Appropriate Behavior
Children tend to repeat behaviors that draw their parents’ attention. According to Latter-day Saint parent educator Glenn Latham, “Parents typically ignore 95–97 percent of all the appropriate and good things their children do. But if a child misbehaves, parents are 5–6 times more likely to pay attention to that behavior” (Glenn Latham, What’s a Parent to Do? Solving Family Problems in a Christlike Way, 116).
When parents only respond to negative behaviors, no one should be surprised when the children misbehave. Parents can reinforce desirable behavior by showing interest in what their children do and by interacting with them in a positive way—smiling, expressing gratitude, or giving a pat on the back. Praise should be genuine and directed at the child’s behavior and its value to the parents and others.
2. Allow Children to Experience Appropriate Natural Consequences
Natural consequences automatically follow actions. For example, a child who fails to study for a test usually gets a lower grade. A teenager who gets a speeding ticket must pay a fine. Individuals learn quickly from natural consequences because the consequences occur in spite of protests or arguments against them. If parents protect their children from natural consequences, such as paying their traffic fines for them, they deprive the children of valuable lessons.
Natural consequences may harm children who are too young to understand them. For example, a toddler must be protected from touching a hot stove or walking alone by a stream of water or playing in a busy street.
However, parents can allow a younger child to experience minor natural consequences, such as breaking a toy by defiantly banging it against the sidewalk or ruining a marker by refusing to put the lid on it. In such cases, children can learn best from consequences if they have been taught the rules and understand the natural consequences that will occur as a result of breaking the rules.
3. Apply Logical Consequences
Logical consequences are imposed by parents in a way that is logically connected to a child’s behavior. For example, a child who acts up during dinner may be asked to leave the table until he or she is willing to eat quietly. Logical consequences work best when they: (1) Make sense to the child. (2) Indicate respect for the child. (3) Require the child to pay a price.
Parents should impose them in a firm and friendly manner—not in anger—or the consequences will invite resentment. Parents can also use consequences that may seem less logical, such as taking away the privilege of watching television when their children have not done their work. The connection has to do with work and privileges. Watching television is a privilege that is earned by being responsible. A child who is irresponsible can lose a privilege.
When implementing consequences, parents should focus on being in control of their own behavior rather than on controlling their child. Parents should tell the child what the parents are going to do, not what the child will do, which is beyond their control.
In all cases, consequences should be imposed in an atmosphere of love and kindness. Consider the statement from Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–42: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained . . ., only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.”
4. Give the Child Responsibility
When confronting problem behavior and before imposing a consequence, parents are often wise to discuss the problem with the child, asking the child how he or she is going to correct the problem. The question is important because it allows the child to take responsibility for solving the problem. Children are more likely to improve their behavior when they help identify the course of action they should take. If a child refuses to engage in this kind of conversation, the parents should proceed with the consequence.
5. Let the Consequences Do the Teaching
When parents apply consequences, children sometimes react with anger and want to argue. The best learning occurs when parents say little but follow through with the consequences. If the connection between the infraction and the consequence is clear, the child will feel responsible and learn from the experience. However, if the parents impose a consequence and then argue about it with the child, the child will focus on winning the argument and will lose sight of the reason for the consequence. Likewise, yelling and moralizing usually won’t work; they will only provoke resentment in the child. Parents should let the consequences do the teaching. The teaching power of consequences is illustrated in the following example of a four-year-old child and his parents.
6. Use Time-Out
Time-out is a consequence that is most effective with children ages three to eight. It involves moving a child from a disruptive situation to another room or area where the child does not receive attention.
Time-out is especially helpful for children who are easily distracted. It does not help destructive children who are in a power struggle with their parents. These children may be too upset to sit in a chair or stay in a room. If forced to comply, they may damage or destroy property or household furnishings.
Time-out teaches the child a controlled, nonviolent way of handling problems. When parents take a child to time-out, they should remain calm and kind, remembering that “a soft answer turneth away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). The time spent away from the family should be the only consequence.
This approach should not be used by angry parents who would drag their children to the designated room as punishment. When parents resort to tantrum-like behavior and say things that hurt the child, they unwittingly teach and reinforce inappropriate behavior. Paul urged Church members, “Provoke not your children to anger” (Colossians 3:21).
7. Seek Agreement in Advance on Rules and Consequences
Generally, parents have a better relationship with their children when the children understand and consent to family rules and consequences. Family councils, family home evenings, and personal interviews are great times to involve children in discussing family rules, the rationale behind them, and the consequences for disobeying them.
When a child agrees to a rule and then breaks it, the parents can remind him or her of the rule and the consequences. Parents can express genuine empathy that privileges have been lost. Then the child is less likely to view the consequences as punishment.
8. Use Good Judgment
Minor misbehavior does not warrant the use of consequences. Talking with the child may be sufficient. Obnoxious but harmless behaviors are best ignored. Children will give them up more readily when such behavior is disregarded. Attention may only reinforce negative behavior.
President James E. Faust of the First Presidency taught the importance of love and of recognizing differences in children when disciplining them:
Child rearing is so individualistic. Every child is different and unique. What works with one may not work with another. I do not know who is wise enough to say what discipline is too harsh or what is too lenient except the parents of the children themselves, who love them most. It is a matter of prayerful discernment for the parents. Certainly, the overarching and undergirding principle is that the discipline of children must be motivated more by love than by punishment” (President James E. Faust, Ensign, Nov. 1990, 34).
The important responsibility that parents have in rearing their children cannot be overstated. This statement from President Faust underscores the importance of teaching and of being good parents:
While few human challenges are greater than that of being good parents, few opportunities offer greater potential for joy. Surely no more important work is to be done in this world than preparing our children to be God-fearing, happy, honorable, and productive. Parents will find no more fulfilling happiness than to have their children honor them and their teachings. It is the glory of parenthood. John testified, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 1:4). In my opinion, the teaching, rearing, and training of children requires more intelligence, intuitive understanding, humility, strength, wisdom, spirituality, perseverance, and hard work than any other challenge we might have in life. This is especially so when moral foundations of honor and decency are eroding around us. To have successful homes, values must be taught, and there must be rules, there must be standards, and there must be absolutes.
Many societies give parents little support in teaching and honoring moral values. A number of cultures are becoming essentially valueless, and many of the younger people in those societies are becoming moral cynics.
As societies as a whole have decayed and lost their moral identity and so many homes are broken, the best hope is to turn greater attention and effort to the teaching of the next generation—our children. In order to do this, we must first reinforce the primary teachers of children. Chief among these are the parents and other family members, and the best environment should be in the home. Somehow, some way, we must try harder to make our homes stronger so that they will stand as sanctuaries against the unwholesome, pervasive moral dry rot around us. Harmony, happiness, peace, and love in the home can help give children the required inner strength to cope with life’s challenges (President James E. Faust, Ensign, Nov. 1990).
God has given the responsibility to rear their children in love and righteousness, and He will hold all parents responsible for their parenting successes or failures. (See “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”) However, every person who comes into this world was given the gift of agency by Heavenly Father, and He will hold individuals who have reached the age of accountability (age eight years) accountable for their choices.
Remember, we have the freedom to make choices, but we cannot choose the consequences of those choices. Elder Boyd K. Packer said it this way, “We are free to choose what we will and to pick and choose our acts, but we are not free to choose the consequences. They come as they will come.” Families, communities, and nations will be stronger when parents teach responsible behavior by applying negative consequences for misbehaviors and positive rewards for good behaviors.