The importance of consequences

One day, I was lining up at a McDonalds behind a mother and her FOUR little kids, who was between the ages of three and ten. The mother was asking the kids what they wanted to eat and conveying it to the guy at the counter, and the kids were getting pretty excited. They were loudly discussing which Happy Meal toys they wanted and a couple of them started chasing each other around a bit, when the mother suddenly turned around and calmly but firmly told the eldest one, “Can you please get your brothers and sisters together, go find us a table and sit quietly until I get over there?” And to my surprise, they did exactly that. The older brother gathered them up and, without losing their smiles and enthusiasm, they marched to a nearby table and sat down.

“Wow! Those are some amazing kids you have there,” I said to her.

She realized what I was referring to, smiled, thanked me for saying so, agreed that they were indeed great kids, and then added, “My husband and I have definitely put the work in with them.”

I knew exactly what was behind that statement; that these astonishingly well-behaved kids were the result, at least in part, of a hundred thousand situations where she and her partner had to play the unfortunate role of, “The Enforcer.”

So today, I want to talk about consequences; how they help us raise better kids and enable us to be better parents.

The most common issue I see with toddlers who are, what we might cordially describe as, “out of control,” is that they never face any consequences. Their desirable behaviour is rewarded but their unwanted behaviour is met with either indifference or anger from their parents.

(Just a quick note for those of you who might be thinking that making your parents angry is a form of consequence. It’s not. Anger is attention, even if it’s a negative attention, and if your toddler is looking for attention, they’ll take it in whatever form that they can get it.)

Now, I’m as progressive as the next parent, and I think most of us can agree that our kids should be free to experience emotions and figure them out in their own way. Anger, sadness, frustration, and other negative emotions shouldn’t be suppressed. Kids should explore those feelings and learn how to cope with them. But that doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to throw their toys or hit their siblings. It’s our job as parents to teach our kids about the real-world consequences their actions can have.

And the truth is, toddlers don’t want that level of autonomy. Children are happier living in a world with structure and boundaries. Giving your little one free reign to do as they please sounds fantastic, but it’s too much for a child that age to navigate. The feeling that they’re completely untethered leaves them with no direction or expectations, and they end up feeling overwhelmed and unguided.

So there have to be rules, and when those rules are broken, there have to be consequences. Otherwise, they’re not rules, they’re suggestions.

How do we put these consequences into effect? Just like everything in parenting; clearly and consistently. There are many functioning ways to discipline a child, and one of my favourite strategies is still the tried and true time-out, but however you apply consequences for your child’s behaviour, here are a few things to consider.

1. Give a warning

Even if your little one knows that what they’re doing isn’t allowed, I always like to try to give one warning before implementing a consequence. There are exceptions, obviously, but for the most part, it’s best to make sure they know that what they’re doing will earn them a reprimand if they keep it up.

2. Set up a designated area

Have a space where your child can go to serve out their sentence. It should be somewhere out of the view of the rest of the people in the house, but also where there’s nothing they can get into that could be dangerous. We want them to dislike their punishment, remember, so somewhere boring, works well. 

3. Set a timer

I’ve had parents tell me, “I try to give him a time-out, but he won’t sit in the chair.” This is one of the reasons I like time-based consequences. I find the best approach is to set a timer, show your little one how long they’re in time-out for, and then reset the timer every time they get up out of the chair, or leave the room. They might pitch a fit and get up to leave the first several times they’re put in the chair, but after a while, they’ll realize that they’re just prolonging the situation by refusing to listen. 

4. Keep it boring

I know parents whose idea of a time out is for their toddler to sit on Mommy’s lap for five minutes while she strokes their head and sings to them, and while I’m all for soothing a child who’s lost their cool, we need to remember that a negative consequence needs to be at its heart, unenjoyable. We don’t want to reinforce undesirable behaviour by consequence it with a cuddle session or a treat just because it will ease the situation. We want this to be a little bit unpleasant, otherwise it’s not going to steer the child away from the behaviour in the future, so make sure their time-out is spent without any attention or entertainment.

5. Consistency is key

It may sound cliche, but I still love the saying, “A rule is only a rule… if it’s a rule.” If you explain the rules to your toddler. but then only enforce them some of the time, well they’re not really rules after all. It’s confusing for a child when they don’t know if the rules apply in a specific situation, and they can end up feeling really frustrated if they end up getting punished for something that was clearly not an offense the night before. So set clear rules and enforce them 100% of the time. 

That mother I was talking about at the start of this piece, she probably had a few thousand moments of feeling insecure, questioning her judgement, and wanting nothing more than to ease up when her kids started crying about a punishment. But if she had, she wouldn’t have the relationship with them that she does, where she can turn to them and say, “This is what I need from you right now,” and have them listen without the need for intimidation or threats.

I totally understand that none of us want to be the bad guy. We all want to have a perpetually loving and happy relationship with our kids, and not play the prison warden. But we signed on for the job when we became parents. We have to be the grown-ups and accept the responsibility of establishing and enforcing the rules.

If we don’t, well, there will be consequences.

Good Night, Sleep Tight.