Actions Teach Better Than Words


One crisp, fall morning my 5-year-old daughter Laura, was dressing for school … supposedly. Instead, I found her half-naked, staring in the closet and mumbling to herself. Somehow, she’d managed to find numerous distractions to prevent progress.

“Laura, get dressed!” I urged for the umpteenth time. However, to my chagrin, this sweet kindergartner continued dawdling. “Laura, are you dressed yet?” I asked again.

“Aaahhh!” – as Cathy in the comic strip exclaims – I realized, I’m nagging my kid! Nagging was a violation of my own rule in parenting. I should be smart enough to prevent this misbehavior, I scolded myself. Laura was not doing what she was told, and it’s partly my fault.

I determined to immediately correct the situation and calm my nerves. A logical consequence seemed in order. I wanted to teach my daughter that she was acceptable, even though her dawdling behavior was not. So, I walked into her room and calmly, firmly (and finally) announced, “Laura, if you aren’t dressed when your bus comes, you’ll have to finish on the bus.” Wide-eyed, she gazed at me with a smart-alecky smirk on her face. I left her room resolved not to mention it again or checked in on her.

Several minutes later, I heard the squeal of bus brakes and the familiar horn toot. Usually this was Laura’s signal to dart out the door and onto the bus. Anxiously I bit my lip wondering if she was presentable. I went to her room and saw Laura was dressed … except for her feet. “I’ll put your socks and shoes in this sack so you can finish dressing on the bus,” I said as I dropped them in a bag. Then I handed it to her while she stared at me with disbelief and gaping mouth.

Barefoot, Laura held my hand as she shuffled down our driveway toward the waiting yellow bus. She hesitantly mounted the steps toting her bag of unfinished business. I watched as she meandered through the aisle and sat down on a seat. “Have a good day. Love you!” I cheerfully reminded as the doors folded shut. Then I watched her bus drive out of sight, feeling a bit shameful and haunted with doubts. Was I being too harsh?

The next morning, without reminders, Laura was completely dressed before her bus arrived. The previous day’s experience taught her to stay on task. Fortunately, this logical consequence was necessary only once, and I share my minor triumph to help you effectively discipline through consequences.

Conscious of Consequences
What did my discipline technique teach Laura? I believe she learned about time management, self-discipline to stay on task, and that Mom can be trusted – she means what she says.

Kids need rules and guidance to help them learn appropriate behavior. Research shows effective parents don’t need to use physical force to discipline, but are more likely to set clear rules and explain why these rules are important. Effective parents are not punitive, overly strict or permissive.

Most kids learn better from experience than passively absorbing words (reprimands or nagging) from adults. Consequences help children learn they are accountable for their actions, without damaging their self-esteem. It is good parenting to allow our kids to make an age-appropriate choice about their behavior and to live with the result of that decision.

There are two types of consequences: logical and natural. A logical consequence, determined by the parent, is a rational result of a particular behavior. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says, “Consequences should be fair and appropriate to the situation and the child’s age.” Natural consequences are related to the laws of nature: a teen who stays up too late suffers the natural consequences of being tired the next day.

In my situation, the grueling part was enforcing the consequence. It would’ve been easier to plop my little darling on the bed and hurriedly pull on her socks and shoes. But I couldn’t allow it to slide or I would’ve enabled her to ignore the task. She needed to learn self-direction, concentration and the consequence of wasting time.

Every day there are opportunities to use logical consequences to guide your child’s behavior. For example, to help your tot stop throwing food on the floor you can state, “When you throw food on the floor, you have to pick it up,” or, for the budding artist who scribbled on the wall, “Here’s a rag, now wipe it off.” Children soon learn their behavior has an outcome. If they don’t like the outcome, they’re motivated to behave differently.

Effective parents state the rule, the outcome and then allow the consequence to happen. And kids receive a valuable message: “I live by my choices.”

For maximum effect, a consequence must be:
• specific
• related to the misbehavior
• allowed to happen (no rescuing)

Avoid Battling, Rescuing
Regardless of your child’s age, you can allow your child to experience the consequence of her choice. Laura’s older sister had been taught to do her own laundry. Like anyone who fails to wash dirty clothes, Lynsey soon learned when she didn’t do laundry, she had “nothing to wear!” One parent told me she removed the door to her teenager’s bedroom as a consequence for his repeatedly slamming it. Another mother who was tired of nagging, “brush your teeth,” told her son he’d help pay for the cost of his cavity. After part of his allowance went to the dentist, he began brushing regularly and without reminders.

Natural consequences also are a successful teaching tool. As adults, we’ve learned that leaving our house on a rainy day without an umbrella puts us at risk of getting wet, or that working all day without meals makes us hungry and grumpy. Within reason – and safety – allow natural consequences to happen in child discipline. Rather than cajoling or getting into food wars with kids, simply state, “If you don’t eat, you’ll get hungry.” Let nature take its course without a snack rescue. When your child complains shortly after a meal that she’s hungry, say, “I know you must be hungry. You can eat when we have dinner.”

One friend has told me how she saved herself a battle of wills and words. She allowed natural consequences to teach her 3-year-old, Nathan. Anxious to play with the neighborhood kids, Nathan begged to join his pals outside on a chilly day. “You may, but wear your coat,” she advised.

Like most rambunctious preschoolers Nathan ignored his mother’s guidance and dashed outdoors. Within minutes, Nathan ran back in the house looking for something to wear. His mother handed him a coat, without a scolding or saying, “I told you so” … but with a little motherly smugness.

Parents also can use positive outcomes to motivate their child. Incentives, praise and rewards can encourage appropriate behavior and increase self-esteem. Say something like, “When you walk beside me at the store, I will let out of the grocery cart” to encourages a preschooler to remain with you rather than run through the aisle.

Why don’t more parents allow consequences to teach their kids? It may prove inconvenient, so parents rescue and, ultimately, sabotage the lesson. When you cave in, it indicates a lack of respect for yourself. Consequences also take time to be effective with some kids. They may need repeated experiences to internalize the rule and change behavior.

Kids need parents who say what they mean and mean what they say. Then kids learn to trust and rest in the knowledge that they are always loved, but their behavior is not.