Research suggests that an engaged and loving relationship between parents and kids, backed up by firmly held limits, correlates with good self-esteem and positive social relatedness in children. But when it comes to being “firm,” sometimes we parents are at a loss as to what to actually do when the kids pull on their wolf suits and get up to all sorts of mischief as does Max in Where The Wild Things Are.
One way to engage this issue is to contemplate the exact nature of any specific behavior our child might do that raises the question of what we ought to do in the way of discipline, consequences or teaching. In other words, when your kid is “bad,” what is it that they do, and how might it go over in the big bad world if they were to grow up with out learning better?
First, pick one key problem behavior your child repeatedly does such as showing disrespect or refusing to do what they are asked. Next, try to intuit underlying reasons for negative behavior such as your child is sad, anxious, guilty, or is suffering from low self-esteem or feelings of neglect. Generate multiple possibilities—this is not about being “right,” rather it’s about deepening empathy.
Next, imagine “real world” consequences for their behavior if they were to continue it into being a grown-up; maybe they would lose relationships if they were rude, or lose money or their job if they failed to show up and do their work, while a bad attitude might cost opportunity for promotions or narrow possibilities and violence or serious rule breaking could lead to loss of freedom or privileges.
Now work backward from i.e. jail in adulthood to a temporary loss of freedom in the form of a cool-down/time-out (much as Max gets in Wild Things). While no consequence is a magic bullet of teaching, when we bother to base them on some sort of logic our overall message becomes more clearly about coaching a child to be equipped to deal with reality rather than the random results of our personal irritation.
Ideally we take our time and pick a “logical consequence” tailored to the lesson we want to teach or reinforce. Possibilities include: repairing damage (i.e. doing extra chores, cleaning up); losing privileges (i.e. going out curtailed as in “grounding,” loss of talking on the phone or texting); time outs/cool downs (i.e. a briefer variation on being grounded); the recognition of the need for help or treatment (i.e. therapy, twelve step-recovery, family therapy, drug testing). Sometimes the natural consequence of our child feeling bad about their behavior is enough, and no further intervention is needed. Where empathy is weaker, however, some external experience may be in order to help a kid experience the consequences of behavioral choices.
The point is not to really find a way to get to a kid (i.e. lasering in on their favorite thing and simply snatching it away). In life, for example, you don’t get stopped from watching TV when you lose your job—you often end up watching more TV. Not earning allowance, however, more closely resembles a logical consequence of chores neglected or forgotten.
Finally, implement whatever consequences you devise with the compassion born of emotional neutrality; in this way our feelings are not the consequence, and making us happy (or not making us mad) stops being the metric by which kids decide how to behave. We want kids to develop a real sense of what feels right to them, and to taste the good feelings of being honest, authentic and in the integrity of thoughts, feelings, words and actions all being in one common direction. We can reinforce feelings of success in our kids by noticing and appreciating when they are on the right track, although “I’m proud of you,” is not as good as “I hope you’re proud of yourself” as it teaches that self-esteem, more than parent opinion, is what matters most.
In the end it’s not about control and authoritarianism so much as working together to compassionately set and enforce pro-social behavior so that our identity expands to being part of a group.
Also note: we don’t have to think of, or give, consequences in the heat of the moment. Take time, craft consequences well and bother to explain how and why a consequence is logical and what it is meant to teach—but not until a child is relatively calm, otherwise they are blocked from really hearing the lesson in the logic. After all, we can be as lenient as if we’re hardly there, but when a child comes up against the rest of the world they may be severely shocked the moment they don’t get their way. If a kid can’t handle the frustration tolerance of socialization they are at heightened risk of acting out in school, or withdrawing into isolation and low self-esteem. If the culture in our home bears at least a passing resemblance to the culture at school, for example, it may be easier for a child to acclimate, and thrive, in a school environment.
So, let’s dedicate today to making consequences logical when necessary in the first place, and to trying to minimize the need for consequences by engaging with our kids, leading with compassion and clear communication about rules and expectations (i.e. how long computer games may be played, the importance of manners, respect for others, etc.) and being more calm and centered in our own coming up with, explaining and implementing consequences—in honor of all our collective children.
p.s. if you come up with logical consequences that really fit some of the classic kid “bad” behaviors feel free to share them as comments as perhaps some other parents would benefit.