As parents, we have within our reach the greatest and most effective disciplinary strategy in the world. No, it’s not military school or “Brat Camp”. The single greatest teaching and discipline strategy is a phenomenon woven into the fabric of life itself.
Simply put, here it is: our choices have consequences. Every single one of them.
There is a law of sowing and reaping that, when we think about it, has taught us more than any lecture, textbook, or sermon. Whenever we are able to calmly reflect on our experience, including our mistakes, then we begin to own our choices and become healthier, more self-directed people.
But when it comes to our parenting, we don’t like to watch our children make mistakes. And we don’t like having to take the time and energy to enforce the consequences of those mistakes. So instead, we scream. We threaten. We hope it “works,” meaning we hope our screaming forces them to behave the way we need them to. When it doesn’t, we scream some more—and then our screaming becomes the consequence itself. This isn’t working and everyone knows it. No one is learning anything here, but what else can we do?
We can let the consequences do the screaming. We can learn to get our emotional anxiety out of the way and let the consequences do their job. So how do we do that? We learn to calm ourselves down. But before we do that, we must actively become interested in calming ourselves down, instead of focusing on getting our children to never make mistakes.
Here are some principles to follow when deciding to “let the consequences do the screaming”:
1. Don’t Ever Set a Consequence That Is Tougher For You To Enforce Than It Is For Them to Endure. How serious can you possibly be by grounding your teen-age daughter for a month? Are you crazy? Do you really think it’s possible to baby-sit her that long? When we overextend ourselves, it becomes that much easier to cave in when the emotional pressure hits. And thus, we break our promises and teach our kids not to trust our word.
2. There Are No Shortcuts To Setting Or Enforcing Consequences. Providing consistent discipline for our children is always time-consuming, sometimes exhausting, and never done from afar. That’s right; it’s supposed to be difficult. Reflect on the times when you have been consistent, when you have followed through. I guarantee you’ve been able to do it more than you think you have. Keep it going.
3. There Is No Magic Consequence, Guaranteed to Correct Your Child’s Behavior From Now On. So often we find ourselves searching for the magic pill, that one consequence that will make our kids feel remorse, make our kids change their behavior, and make our kids never do it again. The trouble is that the more we need the consequence to “work” like that, the more we invite our child to resist its effects altogether. The power of consequences is not found in short-term compliance, it is found in demonstrating consistently over the long-term that our choices have results.
After you take PlayStation away, your son may say “Fine, I don’t care.” This is his effort to show that you haven’t gotten to him emotionally. Here’s a great response: “I don’t care that you don’t care. That’s not why I’m taking it away. I’m taking it away because of the choice you made to break curfew (or whatever infraction he committed).” Don’t set the consequence to prevent him from doing it again (he will). Set it so that a) you have something to do other than scream again; and b) he will learn to trust your word and learn about the law of sowing and reaping.
4. Only Choose Consequences You Are Willing To Endure Yourself. This may be the toughest principle for us as parents. We cannot expect our kids to handle the consequences of their choices any better than we do. So often we anxiously want our kids to learn lessons we have yet to master. Welcoming consequences into your home means welcoming them for yourself, and even letting your kids watch. Take your kids to traffic court and let them watch you take your medicine from the judge. I promise it becomes easier to enforce consequences when you yourself know how beneficial they can be for your own growth.
**First published on June 8, 2009
Hal E. Runkel, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the groundbreaking book ScreamFree Parenting: Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool, from Waterbrook Press. Visit www.screamfree.com for more information.