It’s pretty easy to find yourself caught in a stand-off with a child. In fact, it’s probably an everyday occurrence. They’re doing something you don’t like – it might be dangerous, unkind, wasteful, disruptive or just flat out defiant. So it makes sense to get them to stop and do something else that’s kinder, nicer, and more productive. Enter, consequences.
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Consequences that don’t really work
When we think of consequences, we tend to think of removing something like a privilege in order to get a child to do what we’ve asked them to. “If you don’t clean up these toys right now, I’m giving them away.” “If you don’t go to bed right now, I’m cancelling your playdate in the morning.”
It’s usually delivered with a threat and whether we realise it or not, has an underlying flavour of punishment to it. We are triggered, our kids are triggered too and it often ends in a standoff, with us looking for an even bigger ‘consequence’.
The thing is, this doesn’t teach a child very much, except to avoid a penalty. It’s because this set-up has us pitted against our child and it often lacks our child feeling our warmth and connection. In fact, in the threat we inadvertently tell our kids that until they behave, our love and approval are suspended.
Consequences that work better
Can I suggest a different take on consequences? I like to call it ‘the long game’. Let me set the scene.
Setting the scene
Not too long ago I found myself in one of those ‘everyday occurrences’. My friend’s little three-year-old boy, Oliver, is in the phase where he thinks he’s the king of the world. He’s in charge of life, brimming with energy, curiosity and a full sense of justice. The ‘this is right, that’s wrong and I decide which is what’ kind.
It was a wet, miserable day and on top of a runny nose, Oliver had been stuck inside for longer than optimum. He had his own box of tissues and was enjoying pulling them out of the box as fast as he could. Naturally they were flying everywhere and he was loving it. Seeing the mess and waste, and probably also a bit fed up with the confinement of being inside too, his mum did what most of us would naturally do and sent out a sharp ultimatum. “Stop that now, Oliver! You pick those up right now and put them back in the box or I will take away your truck.” He looked at her and simply walked off – no intention of doing what he’d been asked.
What’s the long game?
The long game is still consequences, it just doesn’t come with a threat. It’s keeping our eyes on the goal. In this case, it’s helping Oliver remember that tissues belong in their box, helping him feel like he’s capable of cleaning up a mess, and teaching him that mistakes are fine because they can be fixed.
Here’s what the long game sounds like – and how it played out after Oliver’s mum reset and gave it another go. She put the box of tissues back where it belonged and reminded Oliver that this was where it lived. She then let about 10 minutes lapse before saying again, “Let’s get those tissues back in the box together.” And this time, Oliver was more than happy to do it.
Why does it work?
Playing the long game works for a number of reasons –
- There’s no stand-off or invitation to a fight
- Our kids get to keep their dignity intact
- Limits are set
- They get to calm down (and so do we)
- Our connection is offered – through our friendly tone of voice or for younger ones, with the offer to help them clean up their mess, “Let’s pick up the tissues together.”
With slightly older kids, there’s an opportunity here for problem-solving too. For example, “We don’t play with the soccer ball inside. It scrapes the paint off the walls. What other fun and safe place could you go and play?”
When we play the long game, we also build security in our children. Our kids are always doing research to check out if mum or dad really mean what they say. They make great progress when they work out day by day, challenge by challenge, that they’re safe in the relationship and that there’s no manipulation. They learn their parents will take the lead and ensure they follow through on what they’ve been asked to do.
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