Do Consequences Work with Older Children?

By Camille North, editor of API Links

consequencesSome years ago, my oldest son forgot his shoes on a routine trip to the grocery store. We’d struggled with the “shoe issue” for a while, and I hadn’t come up with a workable solution to help him remember to bring his shoes when we had errands to run. Frequently, we’d have to double back to the house to retrieve a pair, and I’d be impatient and irritable. This day, I decided to let him take charge. We arrived at the store and, sure enough, his shoes were nowhere to be found. He ended up wearing his little sister’s flip-flops for the (mercifully short) shopping trip. He never again forgot his shoes.

Do consequences work with older children? The whole concept made perfect sense with young children. However, the idea becomes more nebulous as your children get older and become more logical, inquisitive, intuitive, and analytical.

Why Use Consequences?

What are your goals for discipline? Do you simply want your child to obey you? Or do you wish to guide rather than punish, to help your child develop the skills and tools to deal with obstacles and succeed in life?

If you’re an attached parent, more than likely you want your children to think for themselves (not blindly follow authority), stand up for themselves and what they believe in, and make good decisions because they’re good decisions, not because they’re avoiding getting into trouble. Consequences are the perfect way to achieve that.

How Does Disciplining with Consequences Work?

First, let’s talk about what consequences aren’t and what they are. Consequences are not punishment, although that’s what they’ve come to mean in much of the parenting world. In its truest sense, a consequence is simply the outcome of an action.

Many in the parenting world refer to two types of consequences:

  • Natural — something that happens without a parent’s intervention. If my son forgets his jacket, he gets cold.
  • Logical — something that is an obvious, meaningful outcome of an action. The use of logical consequences can be controversial, because there are many ways of interpreting what exactly constitutes a logical consequence and how that fits in with positive discipline. In Attached at the Heart, co-authors and Attachment Parenting International’s co-founders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker have redefined the logical consequence as an opportunity for parents and children to work together to craft solutions. By approaching logical consequences rather as problem-solving, parents can eliminate any blame, shame, criticism, or punishment. So, for example, if my daughter borrows my jacket and lets a chocolate bar melt inside the pocket, we sit down together and discuss how she can participate in getting it cleaned.

Read more: Check out page 229 in Attached at the Heart for tips on using natural consequences, as well as pages 235-236 for more information on logical consequences redefined as problem-solving. Nicholson and Parker give readers a great formula for determining whether a consequence is beneficial or really a punishment in disguise:

  • R — is it reasonable?
  • S — is it simple?
  • V — is it valuable as a learning tool?
  • P — is it purposeful?

Consequences need to make sense and cannot be arbitrary. A natural consequence always makes sense, simply by its nature — it’s something that happens without anyone thinking about it. If my son leaves his guitar on the floor with yesterday’s clothes piled on top and he steps on it, the guitar gets broken (natural consequence). Where problem-solving comes in, is determining together his responsibility in having it repaired.

The controversy that surrounds logical consequences is based in how they’re used — problem-solving versus punishment. If the consequence doesn’t make sense, then it won’t work as a deterrent to future similar behavior. If, for instance, I were to demand that he give up a play date because of his ruined guitar, that’s an arbitrary punishment. How is the play date connected with breaking his guitar? How is this punishment respectful of the child? How is it a positive method of guidance?

What does problem-solving look like? Let’s say that a teenager doesn’t finish a major school project on time. Her poor grade may be months in the future and the full effect may not be noticed until her graduation, when grade point averages are important to getting into college. In that case, problem-solving comes into play. The parent would need to brainstorm with the child to figure out how to make things right. Can the student talk with the teacher to earn extra credit? Can she do summer work to bring up her grade?

The child needs to be involved for the consequence to work and be meaningful to her — and often she’ll have the perfect solution that might have eluded you. That means that you need to be involved, sitting down with your child and deciding together what outcome will work best to make the situation right.

While this approach may seem to take extra time — negotiating, discussing, and figuring out what is indeed logical to the child — in the long run, it’s much easier. When we teach our children to think for themselves and be problem-solvers throughout their lives, rather than passive rule-followers, we give them the tools to succeed.

Why Are Consequences So Useful?

Isn’t it easier to just teach our kids to obey us? Actually, no, it isn’t easier, at least not in the long term. By dealing with consequences, your children are learning to think through situations and to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t the easy thing. If you simply teach them to obey you, they have no inner guidance to follow when you aren’t around. And as your children age, they’ll be around you less and less, and that inner voice is critical. If they’re dependent on you or some other authority figure to tell them what to do, they may follow authority blindly, they may be lost in unfamiliar situations, they may follow a friend’s ill-chosen venture because they want to fit in, or they may not be capable of responding wisely in an emergency.

If you teach them to obey you, you’re assigning yourself the role of police, monitoring their every move to make sure they don’t commit an infraction. It’s much easier to let them make their own mistakes and learn from them, use those experiences as guidance, and let their failures lead to their successes in life.

Positive discipline through consequences is a perfect complement to Attachment Parenting, because the most fundamental current running through all the Eight Principles of Parenting is “respect”: Respect for the child’s ability to think things through and make wise decisions, respect for the parent’s desire to be the parent and not the police, respect for the child’s independence, and respect for the parent-child relationship.

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