When Do Children Understand “Consequences?”

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Why is it so difficult to teach children that actions have consequences?  The question might be, “Why do children not choose the best course of action?”

It is difficult because of caregiver/parent’s unrealistic expectations of children’s brain development. Honestly, I think every parent should take an online course about brain biology when they have a child! Brain growth occurs at different ages, and when parents understand the appropriate ages, they will learn when it is best to expect that children can base decisions on understanding consequences. Most parents give children “consequences” as a punishment much too young an age, when they can’t yet understand them.

The prefrontal cortex is the last section of the brain to fully develop and is responsible for behaviour control and critical thinking. Before age 6, children are pre-operational in their thinking, which means they do not have the ability to think out plans and imagine consequences of those decisions. They do not have all the information in order to make the right decision. When they reach school-aged, from ages 6–13, they get better at understanding consequences and can make decisions. However, they do not have abstract thinking skills yet. School-aged children are still operational in their thinking which means they understand what is tangible and what is in their immediate environment – things they can readily see, hear, touch, smell and taste. They can’t think conceptually until the teen years, so they don’t understand the “gray” areas of decisions, or theory or ideology. Consequences demand that the chooser understands all aspects of the decision in order to make an informed choice.

Children are able to begin understanding consequences around age 6 and are much better at it around age 13. Parents and caregivers need to adjust their expectations accordingly. And consequences should never be given to punish children for their decisions. They need an adult/caregivers help to problem solve a solution instead of “pay” for their behaviour with a “consequence.”

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Are Consequences Punitive?

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In groups, I get asked all the time if consequences are punitive.  It depends.  Consequences are natural outcomes that occur if a parent intervenes or not.  Yes, consequences happen to kids all the time when they are out and about in the world.  The rest of the world will issue consequences to your child, but only you, as the parent, will take the time and effort to problem-solve with them. Children will get consequences from teachers, coaches, police, and other adults.  That’s okay.  Those people are not building a life-long relationship with your child.  You are. When you take the time and effort to problem-solve, you are giving your child valuable life and relationship skills – negotiation.  Your communication lines will remain open and you will enjoy a wonderful relationship with your child.  Here are the differences between consequences issued by a parent in the name of punishment, and problem-solving which is a form of non-punitive discipline.

Consequences or Problem-Solving?

In parenting classes, I often get asked the following question:

When I give my 11 year-old daughter a consequence, she insists that I am being mean to her. I believe that it is respectful discipline. What is the difference between consequences and a punishment?

Brain development stage: Between the ages of 5 and 12, most children figure out that they are not choosing the consequence, and it is the parents imposing the order on them in the name of discipline. If the child doesn’t see the point, she may experience it as a punishment.

Here are the differences:

  • Consequences are parent imposed. The conflict is now between the parent and child. Problem-solving is the parent and child working together to come up with a solution to fix the problem. The conflict is now between the parent-child team against the problem (even if the child caused it.)
  • Problem-solving is a more real-world skill. It teaches kids how to fix things, make restitution, repair relationships and make things right.
  • Consequences are focused on the child, where problem-solving is focused on the end result; a common goal.
  • Consequences tend to be one solution. Problem-solving can be many solutions that would take care of the problem. The goal is repair, whereas the goal of consequences is to teach the child a lesson, which is punitive.
  • Consequences are almost always designed to hurt a child – either financially (pay for a broken item), socially (grounding or taking away cell phone), emotionally (time-out) or physically (hard physical labor). Problem-solving is designed to be pain-neutral. The goal is not to hurt the child, but help the situation. The goal is to fix the problem. Sometimes that is financial or physical, but the payoff is that the child feels good that they are now owning the solution and not just the problem. Children are very fair and more likely to dive into helping fix the problem when they know they caused it, because the focus is no longer on what they did, but what they can do to make it right. When they can put effort into fixing the problem, they feel better about themselves, learn real-world solutions and will make better decisions in the future.

Parents argue, “Yes, but it works!  Consequences change my child behaviour!” That may be correct, but the price is impaired communication.  Parents wonder why they don’t enjoy the open, caring, free communication that they once had with their child. They wonder why they are receiving attitude and silence. Pushback of imposed consequences comes in many forms. Ditch the consequences and use the adult method of problem-solving.

 

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Consequences Versus Problem-solving

Are consequences a discipline tool or a form of punishment?

CONSEQUENCES AS A DISCIPLINE TOOL

By Judy Arnall

 

Consequences are the natural outcome from our behaviours.  Every action that we humans do has a consequence. For our children, consequences are a powerful learning tool that tells them if their decision was a responsible one or a careless one. Experiencing the consequence from their action helps them to modify their future behaviour to enjoy better outcomes. Natural consequences are those outcomes that happen without the intervention of parents. Sometimes, letting children experience the natural consequence is too dangerous, such as letting a two-year-old experience the traffic in the street, because traffic may hit them. Logical consequences are arranged by the parents to teach a child the probable outcome of their behaviour and how to solve the ensuing problem. For example, a two-year-old is confined to the back yard because he runs out on the road when he’s in the front yard. This solves the safety problem for the parent and the child.

 

There are several guidelines when using consequences as a respectful and effective discipline tool.

 

Consequences must be related to the behaviour.  For example, a messy room might mean that the floor is too cluttered for Mom to put away the child’s laundry so the child must do it himself. An unrelated consequence would be Nintendo confiscated for a week until the room is cleaned up.

 

Consequences must be reasonable. If a parenting makes the child pay 10 times the cost of an item that he has broken, it could be seen as unfair by the child. Realistically, the child should only pay for the replacement cost. Often, we issue consequences in anger and they are often unreasonable. To ensure that consequences stay reasonable, calm down first, and then ask yourself if the consequence is something that you would expect from a spouse or friend.  If it is, then it probably is reasonable. If a friend breaks your item, an apology and a replacement is something that you would expect. Teach your child the same solution.

 

Consequences must be realistic and you must be comfortable doing it.  Mom telling the child that the play date will end if the child acts up one more time, may not be enforceable, if Mom is enjoying chatting with the other mom on the play date, and unwilling to cut the time short.

 

Consequences must be consistent. Leaving the store in the middle of grocery shopping because of bad behaviour is very inconvenient, but if done consistently, the child soon learns that if they act up, the shopping trip is over.

 

Consequences must not be used as a punishment. How to tell? If you threaten a certain outcome to get compliance, then the consequence is probably being used as a punishment, which could invite a power struggle, resentment, rebellion, shutdown of communication, etc.  The consequence of parents imposing a consequence on children is that children decide to stop talking to parents. Children know that the consequence arises from the parents imposing it, not from the fact that they may have “chose” the outcome.  For this reason, avoid threats.  Just impose the consequence matter-of-factly. If you get push back from the child, then go to problem-solving to remedy the situation. The best consequences focus on teaching restitution, solving problems and making amends. If a child spills a drink because she was careless pouring, she wipes up the mess. A child who hits another child needs to be separated, calmed down, and told the rule. The restitution part might be to offer the other child a toy, hug or an apology after the emotions have been dealt with.

 

Consequences won’t work when the underlying feeling/need of the child is not addressed.   In those cases, a consequence is the wrong discipline tool to choose. For example, a child who consistently refuses to wear a bike helmet even after having the bike locked away several times may have a good reason for not wearing it. Perhaps he is being teased because it looks babyish. Locking away a child’s bike for a week for not wearing his helmet might be too severe and the child could perceive it as unfair. A sit down problem solving talk to find out why the child is not wearing his helmet, can help to get buy-in from him to find a solution to the problem. He must wear a helmet, but there are many alternatives available when child and parent get together to brainstorm. Does he find the helmet too nerdy? Does he wish to pay half on a new one? Can he borrow his siblings? Can he buy a cool second hand one?  Either solution will mean that the bike still doesn’t get used without a helmet, but brainstorming provides other options.

 

Listening and mutual parent-child problem-solving are better tools used to uncover and address the underlying need. When used properly, consequences teach children appropriate behaviour in a positive way and should be in every parent’s discipline toolbox.

 

Judy Arnall, BA, DTM, CCFE is a professional international award-winning Parenting and Teacher Conference Speaker, and Trainer, Mom of five children, and author of the best-selling book, Discipline Without Distress: 135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment or bribery and the new DVD, Plugged-In Parenting: Connecting with the digital generation for health, safety and love as well as the new book, The Last Word on Parenting Advice http://www.professionalparenting.ca, jarnall@shaw.ca, 403-714-6766