Dad with red card

CONSEQUENCES: Brief, Relevant, Immediate

March 26th, 2013


Consequences for any given situation with your young child should be relevant, brief, and immediate.  Often parents feel that consequences are equated with punishments–that a mistake needs to result in a situation of removing privileges or pleasures or treats. This is counter to research indicating that children respond to encouragement and positive reinforcement more than to punishment and deprivation.

Everybody makes mistakes. It is important to approach all situations with your child, especially hot moments with your child, as opportunities for growing and learning. What is to be learned in this situation? How can we make this situation right? If someone’s body has been hurt, how can we help them heal? If someone’s feelings have been hurt, how can we help soothe them? If a limit has been crossed, how can we reinforce that limit for next time? If there has been a breakdown in your social relationship with your child, what is needed to repair your relationship with your child?

It is also important to remember that young children do not always understand and remember the rules. And we adults don’t always understand and remember that young children do not always understand and remember the rules. Growing up is hard. Helping your child grow up is hard. 

I always like to believe that, in any given situation, everyone is doing the best that they can. At any given moment, believe that your child is doing the best they can. At any given moment, know that you are doing the best parenting that you can. We are all doing our best at this moment. We are all working hard. We are in this together. We are partnered around helping your young child grow up. This helps in bringing compassion to the moment.

Some general guidelines and some examples are provided to cover various situations involving consequences.

Consequences are needed if there has been some harm involving your child and a peer or sibling or you. If there are things that are hurt—bodies or possessions or relationships—then there needs to be repair. Consequences should repair damage, not inflict punishment.

*Brief: Sometimes parents can forget how time moves much differently, much more slowly, for children than for adults. To ask a child not to use a disputed toy for an entire day is not allowing for your child’s time concept. To ask your child to share a doll for an hour is even asking a lot for most young children; by the end of the hour your child may not even remember the conflict. It is important that consequences be brief so that they are congruent with your child’s concept of time and your child’s memory capacity.

*Relevant: Consequences should be relevant to the mistaken choice in behavior. If your child’s feelings were not expressed in a socially appropriate manner, then any harm that your child caused, be it physical or emotional or social, needs to be repaired.

For instance, if your child injures you or another person or someone’s creation, your child needs to verbally address and tend to the injured child’s body or destroyed creation and try to help repair that; in this case, there will often be a rift in the social relationship and that also needs to be tended to in terms of feelings communicated between the two people involved.

If your child has not been physically aggressive but has been verbally aggressive, then the reparation needs to be with your child’s social relationship with a peer or with you. In this case, feelings need to be addressed to repair the breach in the relationship.

*Immediate: It is important that any consequence be immediate. Using the consequence that six hours from now they will only have two books read at bedtime–not the usual three–will be long disassociated from the current conflict situation. Children have limited understanding of cause and effect; if consequences are immediate, then the cause and effect connection can be more easily understood.

Sometimes a rewind of the situation and then a moving on is best.

Let’s resolve this issue and move on. Let’s agree, you and I, what happened, come up with a plan to repair whatever damage has occurred, discuss how to do things better, and then turn the page. We all make mistakes. This isn’t easy, but we’ll try to do better next time. And we’ll rehearse some better strategies”




Leave a Reply