5 Practical Steps to Developing Good Consequences
What's your "go-to" consequence when your child makes a poor choice? Time out — Grounding — Confiscating their phone — Eliminating screen time?
Have you noticed that those "go-to" consequences seem to be less and less effective over time?
We hear from lots of step-couples who get stuck when they're trying to think up effective consequences. They reach out to others looking for ideas. They're hoping to find a menu of consequences that they can choose from when they need it. In reality, what couples need is a system to develop consequences on their own - based on their values, goals and ideas.
Ditching the Go-To
Recently, we had to come up with a consequence. Our son had been picking on his sister a bit too much during some of their extra-curricular activities. We heard this had happened several times and confirmed it with the adults in charge. We were surprised because this is out of character for him.
My first reaction was simple — use the go-to. He likes screen time, so let's take it away.
Kim didn't want to settle for that. She took the time to think it through. She wanted our son to learn a lesson and she wanted our daughter to be affirmed. Ultimately, she really wanted the "punishment to fit the crime" rather than settling for the go-to.
So, she made a suggestion, "What if we have him do her chores this weekend and give him a timeframe to offer a genuine apology?". It was perfect. The consequences fit the crime. It caused him to think about his choices while he was doing his sisters chores. He had to own his choices when he apologized (which we heard later really was genuine). And it affirmed to his sister that we weren't going to allow him to treat her poorly.
Thankfully, Kim thought this through. She ditched the "go-to" and followed this simple process to come up with a consequence that was fitting and effective — you can follow this process too.
Your 5-Step Consequence Plan
1. Clearly Describe the Infraction
I know…this sounds pretty simple. But, the reality is that kids can be exasperating! We often react to kids out of our own emotion rather than pausing to clearly describe their infraction. I've snapped at our kids, yelled at them and doled out little consequences because of my exhaustion — not necessarily because their actions warranted it.
These are the times I need to pause. I need to consider our family values and general house rules. If I can't clearly and concisely describe how their choice or behavior is violating a value or rule, then it's possible they don't need a consequence.
In the story above, our son clearly violated our values of respect and kindness. It was time for a consequence.
2. Evaluate Natural Consequences
Kids experience consequences in all sorts of ways. They might end up in detention. They could miss out on sports because of poor grades. They may have to do some community service. Or they might break their favorite toy while they throw a tantrum. These are all natural consequences not imposed by you.
Sometimes that's enough for kids to learn their lesson. Natural consequences emulate the real world. Kid's learn: poor choice = undesirable result. And the best part of natural consequences is that you get to be "the good guy". If a natural consequence is enough, you can show empathy and be their advocate as they move through it.
In our case, we checked in with the adult leaders of our kids' activities and confirmed that our son really was unkind to his sister. We also discovered that he didn't really receive any natural consequences for his choices, so we had to move on to the next step.
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3. Explore Appropriate Consequences
This is the step where I got lazy. I was ready to use my "go-to" consequence and move on. But Kim didn't settle for that. She thought through 4 specific things that would make an impact:
A. Make it relative to the "crime". Effective consequences are relative to the poor choice. They cause the child to think about their actions and reinforce why they don't want to make that choice again. Kim knew that losing video games wasn't connected to our son's unkind words.
B. Make it relative to the child. Kids are individuals. A consequence that's effective for one child may not be so with another. Considering things like a child's personal preferences, age, developmental stage and personality type all help in creating effective consequences. Our son is a thinker and is relationship driven, so Kim came up with something that would give him time to think (while he did his sister's chores) and that would help him repair his relationship (the apology).
C. Make it appropriate in magnitude. When consequences are too small, kids don't care and then don't learn. When they are too big, kids stay focused on their anger toward the person giving the consequence rather than thinking about their poor choice. Find that middle ground. We're not always very good at this one, but Kim's plan in our story definitely hit that middle ground.
D. Be creative. This is where we really ditch the "go-to". We've found that reacting with a "go-to" is most often related to our own energy. We're busy and tired and just don't want to put the effort into thinking up something creative. The cost is that our kids don't learn. A repetitive "go-to" becomes white noise for kids. Kim's consequence plan for our son was something we had never done before and it got his attention.
4. Don't Over Think It!
By now you might be overwhelmed. You might feel like you're going to have to put hours into developing the most creative and fitting consequences ever seen in stepfamily life! Don't get bogged down trying to come up with the "perfect" consequence. You can follow all of these steps in 10-15 minutes — even when a serious infraction occurs.
You don't always have to respond right away. You can let your kids know that their choice isn't okay and you'll get back to them on the consequences after you've had some time to think it through. That can take the pressure off and allow you to consider all your options. Just do your best and keep moving forward.
Kim's consequence ideas in our story just hit her at a time we weren't even focused on the topic. Give yourself some breathing room.
And if you just can't figure out a consequence that seems fitting, move to the final step.
5. Try the "Energy Drain"
If you've been through steps 1-4 but you're still stuck, check out this article from Love & Logic and give it a try: Love & Logic: The Energy Drain
Practice Makes Perfect
Before you put your energy into developing a menu of standard consequences, consider practicing this 5-step plan when your kids make a poor choice.
After only a few times of sticking to it, you might be surprised at how easy it is to implement more effective consequences in your home!
QUESTION: What's the most creative consequence you've come up with for a poor choice? Leave a comment below…