Let’s be honest here; parenting can be a tough gig. Some days you are operating on no sleep, and unlike any other job in the world, it is almost the norm for your ‘boss’ to literally scream at you all day. Rewarding? Yes of course. But easy? No. It’s not just about keeping the kids alive, safe, clean and fed either. Once they get to that toddler stage, it is also our job to start teaching them how to become functional people in society by teaching them social skills, verbal cues, and all about the consequences of their actions.
Knowing that our actions have consequences is one of the most important truths to instil in our children. While it is easy these days to shrug off a young child’s behaviour with a simple “he’s little and doesn’t know any better”, it is important that we strive to raise conscientious children who are aware that they decide their actions, and therefore they need to be willing to accept the consequences. By learning this valuable lesson, we can hope that they will then try to act with kindness and consideration as much as possible.
No matter the age, children like knowing what is expected of them and what will happen if they disobey. They exceed in structured consistency and thrive when they feel secure in knowing that the rules have not changed from the day before. It should not be a surprise then, that children will learn quickly about cause and effect. This can, of course, be a little difficult for toddlers to understand at the beginning, but consequences (both negative and positive) are a vital part of functioning in society, and so there are certain ways that we can introduce this concept through learning experiences.
Firstly though, it is important to distinguish the differences between a consequence and a punishment. A consequence is something that follows naturally from a person’s action or inaction, while a punishment is retribution or ‘getting back’ at someone for what they have done. As an example, Jamie sleeps in and in doing so missed the bus for school. A consequence would be having Jamie go to bed an hour earlier the next night so that he gets the sleep he needs. A punishment would be taking away his television time. One is linked and teaches Jamie a way to correct his behaviour, while the other is unrelated and doesn’t teach him anything in the long run. As quoted by American Psychologist B.F Skinner, “A person who has been punished is not less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.” It’s important that our children learn early on that what they do or say can have a chain reaction for not only themselves, but the world around them.
Teaching consequences in the early years begins with explaining natural consequences and then working up to personal consequences. “Look at that! Mummy spilt the milk, and so now there is a mess. What do you think happens now?” By verbally talking them through what has happened, they begin to see a direct link between mummy doing something, and how it will be followed up. This can go both ways, with positive consequences playing an important role as well. “Look at that! You studied really hard for that spelling test, and you got them all right!” Asking your child what they think will happen next helps them to better understand that a consequence is a flow on effect.
When it comes to using consequences in your behaviour management, it is important to make sure that you are implementing smaller consequences for minor infractions, and more serious consequences for more serious infractions. If we try to go out all ‘guns blazing’ every time our children do something wrong, they begin to lose sight of the big picture, and instead of teaching them about what choices they can make in the future, it just becomes all about trying to show them you are in charge, which can be counter-productive.
It is also important to be aware that what might not seem like a big consequence to you, might mean the world to your child. Removing phone privileges for an extended time from a teenager is a major consequence as, to many of today’s adolescents, a mobile phone is a prized possession. The same applies for a small child’s favourite toy. Again, to quote Skinner, “The consequences of an act affect the probability of it occurring again.” The trick is to apply an equal consequence to the infraction so that the child is not so overwhelmed by the consequence that they are unable to see or hear reason.
Like our children, we also need to think about the consequences of our own actions. This means dealing with our anger and disappointment from our children’s behaviour, as well as outside influences, in a productive way. We all know how tough parenting can be at times, and you can guarantee that every other parent out there has felt that same frustration; however, we need to try to be more aware of the consequences we ourselves will face if we do not handle a situation appropriately. Children learn so much more from what they see from their parents rather than what they hear.
And so ultimately, the best way that we can teach our children about consequences and taking responsibility for our actions is through how we conduct ourselves with the world around us.
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