Great Advice for Parents

Punishments, time outs and consequences: making sense of the advice.

I’m a mom. I participate in a variety of mom discussion groups. I find a sense of solidarity and support in them. The most common theme that is discussed is: how the heck do I get my kid to do what needs to be done without punishing them?  I mean seriously – sometimes they only respond to threats.

We have been told punishment is bad and counterproductive and we are to use time outs instead.  But, we end up using time outs as if they are punishments, which ideally they are not. And so now there is a backlash against time outs called, wait for it ... time in. We have been told to create natural consequences to help our children learn to behave well, and we end up using consequences as punishments too. And we threaten our kids with punishment in the form of consequences or time outs. We can’t seem to get away from the do what I say or else model of getting our little heathens to behave the way we want or need them to.

There is a lovely article from psychology today that has a list of 10 alternatives to consequences. And the author rightly points out that consequences should not be used as punishments. (see:

Most of the advice amounts to reasoning with your child in such a way that your child will conclude: doing what you need them to do is a good idea. In other words, go Socratic on your child.

I’ve been doing this since my son became verbal. I have always made it clear, he is free to choose his actions and by doing so, he is choosing his consequences. I don’t just impost consequences as a threat. When he is acting out or being defiant – I say – ok – what is it you want to accomplish. He tells me. Then I say, Is doing whatever obnoxious thing you are doing going to get you that? (The correct answer is NO!) What is likely to happen if you keep doing it? (Hint – mommy is going to get frustrated and mad because – heck – she’s human). Do you want crazy mad mommy? (Usually he does not). How might you behave to get what you want? (Hint – do what I need you to do).

He is in charge of his behavior. He chooses his consequences through his behavior. And we do this explicitly. It’s not an emotional process. When he gets upset, and lets face it, we all do, we tell him it’s ok for him to get mad. But acting on anger usually makes things worse, so let’s work together to reason through his options so that we, his parents, can help him rectify his problem.  And, sometimes we can’t. And he has come to accept that too.

Bedtime battles? We never had them. His bedtime is what it is and there are certain things that have to be done before bedtime and if he wants story time, he needs to get them done in time for us to have reading time. He still gets snuggled and stuff, but certain privileges go away because of time constraints. This isn’t a punishment, it’s a natural consequence.

The key to being able to do this – is the reset (or Do-Over in the list from Psychology Today). You can’t be angry or frustrated when you help your child calm down and reason through their actions. You have to be calm and model calm reasoning. Being angry and frustrated is going to happen. You can’t expect your kid to calm down if you can’t. So you calm down first and then start compassionately helping your kids to choose their behavior so that both of you are happy with the outcome.

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