How to Give Consequences That Work

Kids need to experience the consequences of their actions.  Consequences help to improve judgment and facilitate learning, thereby increasing kids’ ability to act autonomously. 

Kids who don’t experience the consequences of their actions are insulated from critical learning experiences. 

So, how should parents use consequences in order to facilitate learning?  Natural consequences are often the best teachers (like getting wet feet from wearing flip-flops instead of rain boots;  more about natural consequences here) but many times the situation we find ourselves in with our kids requires us to step in and do something (for example, kicking the seat in front of them on an airplane, or speaking disrespectfully).

Consequences should be:

1.     Meaningful (something important to the child, such as favorite toys, clothes, or activities);

2.     Relevant (related to the situation, if possible); and

3.     Proportionate to the offense (the more important the rule broken, the more serious the consequence).  Don't give your child a severe consequence just because you are in a bad mood.

4.     Actionable (able to be enforced as soon as possible).  Immediacy is best when giving consequences.   

Consequences should never be related to your child’s fundamental needs, such as food, shelter, or your love.  

It’s also vitally important that parents consistently follow-through on consequences they have communicated to kids.  Without consistency, consequences are little more than threats.  If kids perceive that you only sometimes enforce the rules, they are likely to keep testing.

How consequences are given is also important:  consequences should be communicated and enforced in a calm and matter-of-fact way.  The goal of consequences is not to punish, but to facilitate learning.   More on how to communicate consequences effectively here.

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