This week during the corona virus shelter-in-place it seems my mom friends really need some guidance in getting their kids to listen and obey them. They are using good techniques like choices and setting limits but their kids aren’t responding, they are just ignoring parents and doing whatever they please. Moms are pulling their hair out in complete frustration if they aren’t locking themselves in the bathroom for a good cry. Well, folks, this is for you!
I’m going to first talk about the concept of punishment, what it means and brings about vs. consequences and why they are different and more desirable. I’ll then go into how to determine if there are natural consequences readily available or if you need to figure out another type of unrelated consequence to use instead.
With that said, let’s dive in.
Punishment and what it means
First, let’s talk about the concept of punishment. Typically in parenting we think of a punishment coming as the result of some bad, undesirable behavior – hitting a sibling, stealing food from the pantry, talking back, not cleaning up a mess, using electronics without permission or staying on them longer than allowed, not wearing a helmet when getting on a bike, breaking a toy, forgetting their backpack or losing something. The list of possible bad behaviors is endless and constantly expanding, of course!
In response, a parent dishes out a punishment which varies between a time-out, getting sent to your room, washing your mouth out with soap, taking away electronics, putting locks on the pantry doors, a spanking, or for older kids, the classic, being “grounded”.
In our gut we want all of our kids to respect what we say and to immediately respond. When this doesn’t happen the inner Drill Sergeant in us shows up on the scene and doles out the punishment for not obeying. We will be mad and we might even yell.
“Go to your room!”
“Give me that iPad!”
When our kids are younger, say 0-12, we are bigger and louder than they are and their resistance to our yelling and punishment can be less difficult than by the time they are teens and start yelling back in a louder and more powerful ways. No matter what punishment you give, no matter how loud you give it, it amazes you that the very next day they do the same thing all over again!
This punishment thing just makes the anger and frustration grow in us as well. The cycle is endless. The punishment doesn’t seem to get into the hearts and minds of our kids, does it? How do we make it sink in so they know that we are serious about whatever the rule is that we’re trying to have them embrace.
I want you to put your mind into the child who just got her electronics taken away for a week. Do you know what they are thinking about all week? Is it how they shouldn’t be playing electronics in their bedroom because it’s not safe or is it how mean a mom you are? When you put your child into a 5 minute time-out in the corner for hitting their brother what are they thinking? That they should have used their words instead of their fists when their sibling took away their toy? Or that you’re mean and they hate their sibling and it wasn’t their fault. You’re mean! We see time and again that although the behavior might be stopped temporarily there is no change in the heart of our kids and they have learned to endure the punishments we dole out.
Consequences and why they are different
What I’d like to propose to you is how to use consequences as a way to help our kids learn in their hearts that some things aren’t worth the hassle and they have choices in life as to what good and bad behaviors they want to do.
What are Natural Consequences
Sometimes parents luck out and there are what we call “natural consequences” for a behavior that, if we allow them to sink in without yelling and scolding, are a perfect way to accomplish getting into the hearts of our kids. Let me tell you an example to illustrate. One mom saw that her 8-year-old had left a new soccer ball outside in the yard. This ball was a recent birthday present . When mom mentioned to her son that their dogs might chew up and ruin the ball her son did nothing. Yep. Nothing. He just ignored her. Sure enough, her son came in the house a few hours later upset that their large dogs had popped his ball. They had to go to the store to buy a new one. Here’s what she MIGHT have said: “Oh my gosh, I told you that would happen! Why didn’t you get it when I told you earlier! You never take care of your toys. This makes me so mad you never pay attention to me! There’s no way I’m going to the store.” Her son would have probably cried and maybe shut up but what did mom accomplish? I suggest, not much.
Instead, however, what this mom really did was she gave him empathy and love, “Oh that is so sad, that was your new ball. What do you think you’re going to do about it?” Since she was a Love and Logic mom she started following the Problem Solving technique she had learned in class. Perfect! He had no idea what to do. Would he like some ideas about what some kids might do? Sure, he said. They talked about a few: Buy a new ball with his birthday money? Nah. Go use another ball? Nah, he didn’t feel like playing ball right now anyway. Well, good luck with that, she said. Yep, no scolding. No telling him what to do. She let him know it was a problem and he needed to solve it. She allowed the problem to be his, not hers so as a result she wasn’t the bad guy in the story like she always used to be. You know what her son decided to do in the end? Nothing. Yep. Nothing. He really didn’t want that ball anyway, he had plenty of other balls but he decided he was going to be more careful about leaving the other ones outside where the dogs might get them.
Natural consequences like this can be really powerful if we let them happen and keep our anger and resentment out of the way. Powerful life lessons are there for the taking!
If our kids spill milk all over the table, we let them clean it up. If they are young we might need to help them but we allow them to own the problem. Our natural reaction is to rush in and clean, clean, clean but we rob our kids of the opportunity of learning when we do that. Yes, there is milk dripping all over the table and floor. Yes, it’s inconvenient but… this has been happening regularly because your daughter hasn’t been careful, she reaches too far and knocks things over. We lovingly say: “Wow, this is soooo sad. All that milk has spilled. Can you please clean that up with the towel over by the sink?”
The real problem isn’t the spilled milk, it’s your daughter not being aware of her surroundings. With a natural consequence your daughter learns that every time she is careless there might be a mess to clean up and messes take time and they are often yucky and who wants that. If you let her clean up with love and empathy in your voice the lesson will make it to her heart. She won’t be thinking how mean you are for making her clean up and then sending her to her room because she was careless. Instead, we lovingly thank her for cleaning up and then proceed with our dinner. The natural consequence is enough, no need to make it more.
In another instance, a 4 year-old boy when he was mad, he would peed on the floor in his room. Mom would struggle and fight with him to change his clothes and resentfully clean up the mess. However, she finally saw the natural consequence to his poor decision to pee in his room. She decided the choice was his to pee so he could clean it up and change himself. No struggles needed. The next time it happened she lovingly gave him some towels and told him he could come out of his room as soon as he cleaned it up and changed. She left him there. She was calm. About 15 minutes later a new boy with a completely different attitude and sense of independence came out of that room where so many battles had previously occurred. She let him own it. She wasn’t the bad guy. She offered love and empathy.
One of my sons got his license when he turned 16. He was driving one day through a yellow light that was turning red at a popular intersection. He heard sirens and was being pulled over. Oh my, his heart was beating so fast. He didn’t want to talk to a cop! The police officer gave him a citation for running a red light. He came home and told me about it right away. I just took it in calmly, telling myself that I didn’t get a ticket, he did.
He complained a bit that the light was yellow but he knew it was a pretty weak argument. This was a perfect natural consequence that had months of ramifications. Even I learned a few things in the process. Did you know that running a red light is a moving violation in a different category than a speeding ticket? And those are really expensive? And they don’t tell you how expensive until you get a letter in the mail which takes about a month? My son had a month to wait to figure out the first part of his natural consequence. It was a $600 fine. Ouch. That was going to really drain his savings account, wasn’t it? It was his ticket, not mine. I pay for my tickets, my kids pay for theirs.
Next, traffic school. He got to learn how to sign up. Then he had to pay for that too. Something like another $60. Then he had to finish the class within 60 days. That was the tough part for me. I was biting my tongue trying to not remind him to do anything. If he didn’t finish on time he’d get another lesson about not finishing things that were important, right? I know he’d survive whatever it was that they would throw at him. Luckily, however, he actually wound up finishing on time. Whew!
You know what, after all that not only did HE become a safer driver but so did his younger brother who was sitting in the seat next to him at the time. Haha! I got a two-fer! Both boys with one lesson. Yeah! No battles. No yelling but lots of love and acceptance that all of us make mistakes and with love we can learn how to get through them. How many of us know a parent who would have paid the ticket, signed up their kid for traffic school and pay for that too then sit next to their kid to make sure they did the online class, nagging them the whole time?
Use Natural Consequences early and often in the lives of your children. The love and lessons will do well in building up a long term relationship of trust and respect between you and your child.
What do to when there are no Natural Consequences
Now, for the tough one. What if there is no natural consequence to a behavior? Or your child refuses to take responsibility for a behavior? Or your child just keeps doing the same thing over and over not matter what you throw at them? This is a major problem and so common in just about every household even if you can keep your calm and use love and empathy which in itself is a challenge.
Hit your sister
Play longer on electronics than is allowed
Get on a bike without a helmet
Scream at your parents
Download an app that you’re not supposed to have
Get caught vaping
All of these behaviors are clearly problems and we can certainly take away privileges but that just doesn’t seem to work. Our kids don’t learn in their hearts anything except we’re mean, we’re trying to control them, that we have stupid rules. Younger kids who lose their toys or bike for a few days, they complain and whine but they survive it and live to disobey another day. They might even be thinking subconsciously something like: “That punishment wasn’t so bad and, hey, sometimes mom or dad doesn’t even notice or I’ve worn them down so much they are exhausted battling me so I really only get punished every so once in a while. I can live with that.”
Do you know what a teen who gets their phone taken away for two weeks is thinking most about during those two weeks? Yep, you. Every day, day after day, what a mean and nasty parent you are, who doesn’t understand them.
One dad took away his teen’s phone after he broke the curfew that was set. Dad took it away for a week. His son was a basketball player and it turned out that his coach and teammates always sent texts to each other about practices and such. Well, his son missed several important practices and meetings. Do you know who he blamed? Yep, dad! Now this whole situation was really tricky because the real issue that started all this was about a curfew but the battle was being fought over the phone. Oh my gosh, what a conundrum! The son was so mad at dad that he didn’t even try to figure out another way with his friends to get notified of his commitments.
So, what do we do? We have to attack these problems on two fronts.
One, we can’t let the problems just pass if we decide that something like riding a bike with a helmet is a MUST then every time your kid gets on a bike without one you need to take the time to recognize it and deal with it. You start with empathy and love. “Oh my, this is sooooo sad. In our house we only ride bikes when we have helmets. Please get off your bike and put it away. We’ll deal with this later.” Your child most likely won’t be that thrilled to be getting off their bike and their brain might be emotionally activated. You need to not engage with them when they’re brain isn’t working right. That’s where the delaying the consequence comes in. If your child does have a tantrum please listen to my podcast #6 on Handling Tantrums if you need some help there. The key here is keeping calm. No yelling and getting dragged into a battle.
Next, once you’ve waited for the emotion to pass you need to meet up with that child to have them help put peace and harmony back into your life. Your energy was just drained, wasn’t it? Having to deal with disobedience really gets us and the amount of frustration and the time taken away from us doing other, more productive things with our time is the problem your child needs to solve. Traditionally, we punish then let our kids off the hook as if their behavior only impacted them. That’s where we need to tighten up this process. Their behavior affected many people but for sure us! For those of you who’ve come to Love and Logic parenting classes, this is called Energy Drain. They have some awesome resources for this which I’ll refer to in the show notes. I want to tell you a story of a parent who learned this technique and how powerful it can be.
Here’s what the mom wrote me:
I picked up my kids from school at 12:30 after our class yesterday. My 9-year-old son was not in a good mood and I knew from experience of every early dismissal day that he was very hungry. He was not in a good mood to be nice to me or his sister. By the time we got home, they got into a fight over the leftover food in the fridge and my son started yelling at his sister and left the kitchen in anger. On his way to his room he bumped into me to show his frustration. I gave it a couple of minutes until he came back and I said to both my kids very softly: oh, you know what......this is such an energy drain for me. Yelling, screaming and disrespectful treatment get so much of my energy that I may not have enough left for helping you with your things or driving you around this afternoon.....unless we find a way to put some positive energy back in mommy.
My son did not take me seriously, but my daughter knew I was. Very quickly, she managed to divide up the leftover food for both of them and called her brother for lunch and went out of her way to make everything right. I thought to myself: One, check...one more to go!
Half an hour later, when my son asked me about his baseball practice time. He realized that I was serious about not taking him. Then, he started crying, guilting me that no mom would do that, etc...I just told him, I know.... A few "I know"s later, he calmed and realized that his tactic was not going to work. He asked how can he possibly fix the energy drain. I said I can give him some ideas. Of course, any of my suggestions were too much for him followed by another guilt trip from him and "I know"s from me.....
Eventually, I left the room to do something and when I came back 15 minutes later, I found him folding laundry. I was about to fall on the floor......I thanked him and told him that was very helpful. He was not happy, but was doing the work. It was funny that he said: "You are making me work for you" and "I thought people are not allowed to have slaves any more". I told him very gently that I wish I had unlimited energy, but the reality is I don't. You being helpful gives me energy to help you later.
It was interesting that our conversation eventually changed direction and he suggested that I go lay down in bed to gain energy faster while he did the laundry.
I was amazed to see that not only did he end up doing the work and but was actually showing concern for me.
This mom had only just learned about Energy Drains and she pulled it off to perfection. She was calm and loving and firm at the same time. She let her kids know that their decision to have bad behavior caused problems in ways that impacted her and that impact was important to make right. She used the leverage of her kids’ needing her time later to get them to comply. For you it might be that you don’t have energy to read books at bedtime or to make dinner. If we train our kids to look at how they impact others around them, they will be forced to see others and this creates empathy. Many parents wonder if their kids have empathy for others since they seem so self-centered. It’s using things like Energy Drain that will grow their hearts and have long term effects on their character.
In order to help parents come up with ideas about what types of chores or services can be used to get our kids to put energy back in us I will put a link in my podcast notes to a list of Energy Drain Ideas on my website. The list applies to families with kids of all ages, you just pick the ones that are appropriate for the ages of your children. A 3-year-old can vacuum and put lotion on your hands to help you out while a teenager might scrub those outside garbage bins or paint a fence. My teenage son once had to clean the gutters I was so drained. Whatever you pick it should be something that isn’t their normal job.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about how using consequences instead of punishments might make your daily challenges with your kids go a bit easier. I encourage you to use natural consequences whenever possible but remember that using energy drains when things are going badly are a way of training our kids that what they do impacts others around them in ways they need to make right again. All this will help you change their hearts for a lifetime.
THE AUDIO PODCAST IS AVAILABLE HERE: LISTEN