In the last few entries, we have discussed the way rewards and descriptive praise (positive consequences) can be used to support building new behaviours. Today, I wanted to delve into the other half of the story: negative consequences; and how to use these effectively, as a tool to reduce the likelihood of a behaviour happening again in the future.
Negative consequences are an important part of our overall plan, but the foundations have to be in place in order for them to have the effect we want. To this end, make sure you are already clear on the small set of rules for your household, and that you’re already actively rewarding – through attention and praise – the behaviours you want to see. Once these pieces are in place, we are well positioned to maximise positive behaviours and to set up a meaningful consequence for the minority of persistent, undesirable behaviours.
In the same way that a tangible reward can make following a rule more desirable, a meaningful consequence when a rule is broken makes breaking that rule undesirable. Rules are only real if following them means things go well, and breaking them means we don’t get what we want.
Often, the best and most meaningful consequences are what we call ‘natural’ or ‘logical’ consequences. These are consequences that occur as a natural result of the inappropriate behaviour. For example, if your children are fighting over a toy, the toy is taken away for 10 minutes (note: it’s important to teach the appropriate behaviour in these situations – for instance, how to share or ask for a turn, to ensure they know what you wanted instead). If your child refuses to eat their dinner, the logical consequence is that they will be hungry – and certainly won’t get a different meal, dessert or snacks, unless you want to teach them to be picky eaters! If your child has not eaten their school lunch and is hungry after school, the logical consequence is that they can only have the lunch they didn’t eat, and do not have access to other food until dinner time. Natural consequences mirror the way the world works: if you make an unhelpful decision, you have to deal with the consequences. This works socially, too – if our child hits another child, they may find that the second child doesn’t want to play with them. As much as this might upset our child, it is an important lesson to learn. Helping our kids learn that unhelpful behaviours result in consequences they don’t like, and helpful behaviours result in consequences they do like, is one of the most valuable roles a parent can play in their child’s development.
Sometimes, our children might display behaviour that doesn’t just toe the line but blatantly oversteps it. These behaviours – hitting, biting and similarly antisocial behaviours – require a clear, immediate and meaningful consequence, to show that they will not be tolerated in any way. This consequence – like any consequence – should be firm and clear, but should never come from an emotional place within you (e.g. anger). If you deliver a consequence from a place of anger, you are using the consequence to make yourself feel better, rather than to help the child learn, and this is not helpful. Try to also avoid general, negative, emotional comments such as “you are a bad/naughty boy/girl” and stick to the specific behaviour you didn’t like, e.g. “it is never okay to hit your brother.”
Negative consequences for voluntary, inappropriate behaviours are a powerful tool, and so we need to know how to use them effectively. We must use all the tools in our toolbox for the job in front of us, and should never over-rely on negative consequences – or rewards for that matter – to change behaviour. Ultimately, if we keep in mind our goal – to teach our children how to conduct themselves in a manner that leads to success, achievement, confidence and social connectedness – then we can see both positive and negative consequences are opportunities for teaching. If we take these opportunities and help our children to build the skills needed to act appropriately, we are setting them up for success in life.
If you’d like more ideas and detail on this topic, please check out Consequences in child behaviour management | Raising Children Network. This goes into the subject more deeply and may help you to think about what kinds of consequences are appropriate for your children.