Updated: Jul 24
Consequences are a very effective tool to change bad behavior. However, like any useful tool, if used incorrectly, they can also be harmful. It's very important that consequences are given in love with the purpose of training right behavior. Find out how to give consequences correctly.
This is an excerpt from the book Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.
“Parents, do not treat your children in such a way as to make them angry. Instead, raise them with Christian discipline and instruction.” - Ephesians 6:4 (Good News Translation)
The Two Parts of Training
The secret to having well-behaved children is to train them. Proverbs 22:6 instructs parents to “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he won’t depart from it.” The question is: How exactly do you train up children?
There are two distinct parts to training children:
Instructing and practicing proper behavior.
Stopping wrong behavior.
In this article, we’re going to discuss the second part to training: Stopping the wrong behavior. If you can stop wrong behavior with a verbal correction, that’s great. For compliant children or children who are already trained to obey, a verbal correction is probably all that is needed.
However, if you cannot get your children to comply with a verbal correction, then a consequence is needed.
Why Consequences Are Needed
Some parenting philosophies say not to use consequences or punishments of any type. Instead, parents are advised to use love, guidance, understanding, and communication.
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? And when you think about it, it makes sense. The question is: Does it actually work? Can you really stop bad behavior without some sort of consequence?
Because I’ve seen so many teaching fads which haven’t worked, I’ve grown skeptical about believing every new method that comes along. I no longer unquestionably accept empty rhetoric. I want evidence!
Allow me to give you a brief history, so you’ll understand where I’m coming from. I started teaching in 1983. My mother was also a teacher for 30 years, starting in 1968. Together, we have witnessed many teaching trends that have come and gone. Each time, the promises sounded amazing. And these new ideas were great, except for one tiny detail: they didn’t work.
For instance, in the 1970s, the United States spent millions of dollars building or converting schools to Open Classrooms. (Classrooms with no walls.) This idea was all backed by research too. It was a disaster! After a few years, schools had to spend millions of dollars putting the walls or partitions back up.
Whole language was another idea that was full of incredible hype. Again, we spent millions of dollars implementing whole language. But again, it was a dismal failure. I could go on and on, but you get my point. Do you understand why I’m skeptical of a lot of rhetoric and promises?
The fact is, I’ve actually experienced the no-consequence approach. One year, the school where I was teaching decided to implement a positive discipline program that used no consequences. (Oh, the rhetoric sounded so awesome!) Instead, we were to resolve any disciplinary problems with daily class meetings. We were encouraged to talk it out and find solutions other than consequences. The entire staff was trained, and we implemented the positive discipline exactly as taught. It was a complete failure! One teacher actually quit the week of Halloween because her students were so out of control. We went back to using consequences the next year.
In addition to trying it myself, I have known several families who have used the no-consequence method. These parents were full of love, understanding, and communication. The results, however, were children who lacked self-control and manners.
The Reality of Consequences
Parents have used consequences for centuries because they work. The reason they work is because most people's actions are based on the consequences that follow. If there are no negative consequences for bad behavior, there are fewer incentives to do the right thing.
Think about it. Would you obey the speed limit if there were no speeding tickets? Would you pay the full amount of taxes if there were no penalties? It’s doubtful.
People will especially do the right thing if they know that the consequence is certain. Children are no different. Children will behave a certain way simply to avoid getting an undesirable consequence.
I understand that most loving parents hate to give consequences. Who wants to upset their precious child? But our job as parents is to prepare our children for the real world. In the real world, life is full of natural, negative consequences for wrong behavior. If you don’t pay your bills on time, you get a late fee and a bad credit score. If you don’t do what the boss says, you get fired.
Children need to learn early there are consequences connected to their behavior. When children are spared from receiving consequences, they don’t learn that consequences follow wrong behavior.
Wouldn’t it be kinder for children to learn there are repercussions for bad behavior in a protected, loving home environment? Otherwise, they’ll have to learn about consequences as adults where the stakes are much higher.
Children aren’t going to suffer any long-term effects from getting a consequence. But they will suffer long-term if they are raised without discipline. It is much crueler to let children grow up unrestrained with no self-control than to give them a consequence when they deserve it.
Eli and His Wicked Sons
There’s a great parenting lesson we can learn from in the Old Testament in 1 Samuel, chapters 1 - 4. It’s the story about Eli and his wicked sons. In this story, Eli was the high priest of Israel, and he was a good and godly man. But Eli had two sons who are described as wicked. These two sons had grown up in the church. When they became young men, they became priests, and worked in the church. And yet, they were doing wicked things. They were breaking the laws of sacrifice, and they were seducing the young women who helped at the Tabernacle.
Their father, Eli, was aware that his sons were bad, and yet he didn’t do anything about it. The people told Eli all the wicked things his sons were doing, and yet the only thing the Bible says that Eli did, is that he talked to his sons. Eli told them to stop it; and yet they continued in their wickedness.
Here’s the parenting lesson: Eli didn’t do anything about his sons’ bad behavior. He could have made them stop being priests. He could have told them they couldn’t have any more meat from the sacrifices. There were several things that Eli could have done, but he didn’t. The only thing that he did was he talked to his boys. There were no consequences or actions taken. As a result, both of Eli’s sons died on the same day; and God made this pronouncement on Eli’s family: “For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them.” (1 Samuel 3:13 New International Version)
What’s interesting about the story is that Eli was a good and godly man. How did such a good and godly man raise such wicked sons? The Bible isn’t clear on that, but there’s a lot of speculation in commentaries about why they turned out to be wicked. The number one theory is that Eli just didn’t spend much time training them to be good. He was a busy man with a demanding job. The second theory is that Eli knew his boys were being bad, and yet he did nothing. He was just tolerating their bad behavior. It resulted in the death of both of his sons, and a curse upon his house forever. All because he did not discipline his children.
Consequences are a very effective tool to change bad behavior. However, like any useful tool, if used incorrectly, they can also be harmful. It's very important that consequences are given in love with the purpose of training right behavior.
Following are some guidelines to giving consequences correctly.
Only Give a Consequence When Your Child Intentionally Disobeys
A consequence should only be given when children know the right thing to do, but deliberately don't do it. For instance, if you tell them to stop doing something, yet they continue, that calls for a consequence. If you have taught them not to use the stove without supervision and they do, that calls for a consequence.
However, if children have not been taught that a certain behavior is wrong, there should be no consequence. This is especially applicable to very young children. How would they know that a behavior was wrong if they’ve never been taught?
So if your toddler squirts toothpaste all over your bathroom, that’s not an act of disobedience. That’s just childish curiosity. However, once you’ve taught him the rule about toothpaste and he does it again, then he should receive a consequence.
The best way to determine if your children should get a consequence for poor behavior is simply to examine their motive. Was it an innocent accident or mistake? Then no consequence should be given. If, however, your children knew the right thing to do and willingly chose the wrong thing, a consequence should be given.
Give Consequences with Love
Before my mother ever gave me a consequence, she would always say: “I’m going to discipline you because I love you. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t care how you turned out. I want you to grow up to be well-liked and respected. If I let you be disobedient and undisciplined, that wouldn't be best for you.” I always understood that I was disciplined because she loved me.
Whenever you give a consequence, make it clear to your children that you're disciplining them because you love them. It’s not because you’re mad at them, or that you’re mean. You’re doing it because if you didn’t, they would grow up to be spoiled and out of control. When your children know that you're disciplining them out of love, they won't resent it.
Verbal Correction Should Accompany a Consequence
The whole purpose of giving a consequence is to stop wrong behavior and teach right behavior. Therefore, when you give a consequence, always give verbal instructions as well. Children need to know these three things:
What they’ve done wrong,
Why it was wrong.
What the correct behavior should be in the future.
While anger may seem to get immediate results, it is much better to let the consequences do the talking. Calmly say, "You broke the rule. I told you that if you broke this rule, then you would get this consequence." Then enforce the consequence. No need to yell, scream, condemn, or ridicule. The behavior will be stopped through the consequence. Not only will your children see that you're in total control, it will also be an excellent example for them to follow.
That's not to say that you will never get angry at your children, because you will. It's unavoidable. But there's a difference between showing irritation and throwing an adult-size tantrum. For instance, if you just told your child not to shoot arrows in the house, and then wham, an arrow breaks your glass door; don't feel guilty for being angry. He just broke your glass door! Being angry doesn't mean screaming and yelling and hitting them. It just means it's okay to give them an intense lecture.
If you become very angry and feel like screaming and hitting, leave the room. Tell your children that you need time to think about their consequence. Give them a specific time when you'll get back with them, and then leave. Don't keep talking. Just get out and calm down. Often the punishment children can conjure up in their mind will be far worse than what you'll dole out anyway.
It's also effective to show empathy when giving a consequence. After all, your children just made a very poor choice and now they’re going to get a consequence. You should be sad for them. By showing empathy, you're not the bad guy. You're just following through on what you said you'd do. This will put the burden of guilt on the party who deserves it, not you the parent.
I would often give consequences to my students in my very sweetest voice. I'd say something like, "Oh Ryan, now you're going to have to go back to your seat. You know that if you talk in the game center, you have to sit down." I acted very sad for him that he had made such a poor choice, but I enforced the consequence anyway. As an adult, I had to keep my word.
Give Consequence with Adequate Firmness
The hardest thing for me as a parent was to balance being firm enough so my children obeyed me, yet sweet enough to have a loving environment. There were days when I knew I was being too permissive. Then, there were days when I felt like I was on them all the time. It is truly a difficult balancing act!
In school, I would tell my students that I was the sweetest, nicest teacher in the world when they obeyed, BUT if they disobeyed, I could be downright unpleasant. That became my motto at home. The day was filled with laughter, fun, hugging, and love, BUT, when they disobeyed, I became very firm. The tone of my voice changed and my smile was gone. They had better stop whatever mischief they were in, or there would be an immediate consequence.
If consequences are to stop misbehavior they must be administered with sufficient firmness. If your children repeat the same behavior again and again, that's one sign you weren’t firm enough. If your children go away laughing or are totally unchanged, that's another indication you need to increase your firmness. A consequence works when it produces sorrow and a change in action.
Consequence Depends on Age
Obviously, what works on a four-year-old will not work on a teenager. For a four-year-old who just hit his friend, sitting by himself for five minutes will upset him greatly. For a teenager who just missed curfew, it might be no car privileges for two weeks. You know your children better than anyone. Which consequence will be a real deterrent?
Individualize Consequences to the Child's Temperament
Different consequences work with different children. What works on one child may not work on another. For some children, just a stern look from their parent is enough to send them into tears. For others, verbal warnings have no effect and the children need a much harsher consequence.
My twin boys were a perfect example of this. I only had to scold Skyler, and it would upset him greatly. On the other hand, if I put him in time-out, he was as happy as a clam. He loved to be by himself. Hunter was just the opposite. Verbal reprimands meant nothing to Hunter. But being the socialite that he was, he couldn't stand being in time-out. So tailor your style of parenting and deal with your children according to their temperament.
Make Consequences Known with an If-Then Statement
When possible, let your children know the exact consequence they will receive for breaking a rule. As discussed in Chapter 5, one of the best ways to let the consequence be known is with if-then statements. “If you throw your toy again, then I'm going to take your toy away.” If-then statements simply warn the children exactly what will happen to them if they do the undesirable behavior. Then, if they disobey, you simply carry out exactly what you said you would do. No need to warn again. No need to yell. Just immediately administer the consequence.
When giving if-then statements, make sure you give a specific consequence. Statements such as, "If you touch your sister again, then you're going to get it," is too vague. Let your children know specifically what will happen if they misbehave. "If you touch your sister again, then you’ll have to sit in time-out for ten minutes."
The beauty of making the consequence known before the misbehavior begins is that if your children get a consequence, it was their choice. When they chose to break a rule you have clearly told them not to do, they also chose to get the consequence.
Another great strategy is to give your children a choice. In school, if a student was being noisy in the game center, I would say, "Ethan, you have a choice. You may either play quietly at the center where I can't hear you, or you can go back to your desk and put your head down. Which one do you want to do?" This takes the burden off of you. It will be totally up to the children to either behave correctly or get a consequence.
Plan Out Consequences
It's often difficult to think rationally when your children are driving you crazy. It's also easy to lash out in anger and do something you might regret when your children are behaving badly. Therefore, it is important to think ahead while you're calm, and plan how you will handle it when your children break a rule.
Begin by thinking of everyday problems that occur. What would be the best way to get your children to stop a certain undesirable behavior? Write it down if necessary and get input from your spouse. Next, try to predict every foreseeable problem and plan out how you're going to react. By having a game plan, you can calmly and rationally deal with predictable problems.
Another benefit of planning your response to your children's misbehavior is that it will give the appearance of confidence and control. The parents see the problem and can respond immediately. However, when parents aren't quite sure what to do, they often waver on their decision. And when children detect indecision, they often take advantage of the situation. So be prepared and be confident.
Give Consequences in Private
If possible, don't give a consequence to your children in front of other siblings, friends, relatives, or strangers. It's upsetting enough to be in trouble, much less to be embarrassed in front of others. Besides, if you give a consequence in front of others, children will focus more on their humiliation than on what they did wrong.
So, if you're at a store, take them to an isolated corridor, to the car, or outside. If they’re with friends, take them to another space. This will also help them avoid trying to save face and further misbehave.
Don't Be Talked Out of the Consequence
Be aware that most resourceful children will try to talk you out of their consequence. Don't buy it. If they did the crime, they need to do the time, no matter how repentant they may seem. Even if they cry and promise never to do it again, say, "I'm so happy to hear that, however, you still have the consequence." If you cancel the consequence every time they cry, you're training them to act repentant even if they're not.
My son Hunter used to manipulate me in that way until I finally caught on. If he broke a rule, he would say, "I'm sorry Mom. Please don't give me a consequence. I won't do it again." I would think he was truly remorseful and not give him the consequence. Within a short time, he would break the exact same rule again and then say the exact same thing. He was confident that I wouldn't discipline him if he promised not to do it again. When I finally started giving him a consequence, even when he was sincerely apologetic, the bad behavior stopped. He finally realized that he couldn't get away with it.
If you reconsider the consequence every time your children are unhappy about a decision, it will make them think they can talk or lie their way out of anything. If they get mad and throw a tantrum trying to avoid the consequence, simply say, "You knew the rules and you knew the consequence. It was your choice. End of argument."
If your children are unhappy with the consequence you’ve set, remind them they can make one respectful appeal. (See Chapter 7.) However, after you've considered their appeal, they must abide by your decision. It is not your children's place to negotiate the consequence.
To find a list of the differnet consequences you could use, read chapter 9 of Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.
Want to connect with other Christian parents in your church? Host a small group parenting class. It’s easy with The Parenting with Focus Video Course. Just watch the video and discuss the group discussion questions. Easy—and fun!