Q. At a recent talk that I attended, you said that when children misbehave, they should learn that misbehavior is not "free" -- it should cost them something. I get frustrated because when one of my children misbehaves, I usually can't think of an appropriate consequence. The author of one parenting book I read says consequences should be either "natural" or "logical." That just confuses me further. Help!
A. Yes, we parenting "experts" do seem to have an unwitting knack for making simple things confusing. One such area of confusion, even misinformation, concerns the dispensation of consequences for misbehavior. We've convinced parents that when a child misbehaves, the consequence must be delivered immediately lest the child not make the connection. Indeed, that is true regarding children younger than 3 (because long-term memory does not begin to form until that age). Past that point, it is less and less necessary to deliver consequences immediately. A child of 3 1/2 , for example, can make the connection between a misbehavior and a consequence that is delivered the next day! By age 4, the delay can be upwards of several days, and by age 6, the delay can be as much as a week. The mistaken belief that consequences must be delivered on the spot causes parents to become frustrated, yell, threaten and do other things they later regret.
Now, here's a fact: More often than not, when a child misbehaves, an appropriate consequence is not immediately available.
I'd say that's true at least 75 percent of the time. Not a problem. In the first place, if the misbehavior in question is not chronic and the child in question is generally well-behaved, the parent needs do nothing more than simply say, "I don't like that" or words to that effect. By definition, the well-behaved child values parental approval; therefore, parental disapproval will be sufficiently "corrective," generally speaking.
When a consequence is clearly in order, as when a child is disrespectful or defiant, and one is not immediately available -- as will usually be the case -- the parent should shrug his shoulders and walk away. That's right, just bide time, relax or, as my daughter would say, chill. Within a suitable period of time, a consequence will present itself. I call this "waiting for a strategic opportunity."
Let's say a 5-year-old, upon being told to pick up his toys, says, "I don't want to." Mom, having assessed the situation and come up empty-handed (and knowing that 99 percent of threats can't be followed through with), simply shrugs her shoulders and picks up the toys herself, without a word of complaint. The next day (!), this same child asks permission to go over to a friend's house, at which point Mom says, "Under normal circumstances, you could go, but not today, because yesterday, when I told you to pick up your toys, you refused to obey." The child, of course, will fall into a swoon, complaining that Mom isn't being "fair" and perhaps even disavowing love for her. Mom, unmoved, just walks away, letting her young rebel "stew in his own juices."
In the real world, when a person misbehaves, the consequence is rarely experienced immediately. Parents need to portray the workings of the real world, as early in their children's lives as those workings can be revealed. Therefore, parents need not -- should not, even -- deliver consequences immediately (except with very young children).
To the business of "natural" and "logical" consequences: The concept is, I agree, confusing. Furthermore, the real world does not operate according to this rule. What, pray tell, is "logical" about going to jail for five years for embezzling thousands of dollars from one's employer? Nothing! What's "logical" about not being allowed to go to a friend's house because you didn't pick up your toys? Nothing! Nonetheless, going to jail will serve as a powerful deterrent against further embezzling, and not being able to play with a friend will serve as a powerful deterrent against future disobedience.
In short, when it comes to consequences, parents should simply do what works, whether what works is "logical" or not. Isn't that simple?
Questions of general interest may be sent to John Rosemond at P.O. Box 4124, Gastonia, N.C. 28054 and at http://www.rosemond.com/parenting on the World Wide Web.
If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.