The downside of consequences

Dig if you will one of my finest parenting moments: I was in a grocery store with my two young children. Realizing the outing could be dire, I bribed them: “If you stay with me in the store, you can have a treat on the way home!” 

I’m not fond of bribes and rewards for desirable behavior, but I was desperate that day. I just wanted to get in and out of there quickly and with minimal drama. Of course, this was a fool’s errand.  

We’d been in the store for all of three minutes when my toddler-aged son went bolting off towards the olive bar. My daughter — a 40-year-old trapped in a child’s body — shook her head in disappointment while I huffed indignantly. Eventually we found him dancing around in the meat department, an overstimulated goblin in a soccer jersey. 

“Felix,” I said, in my best stern-parent voice. “Please don’t run away like that. Come over here with Lydia and me.” 

Naturally, he ignored this command, continuing to caper about near the pork chops. 

“Felix!” I said, more forcefully. “Come over here right now — or you won’t get a treat!” 

He suddenly stopped dancing and stared at me defiantly. Then he crouched down, placed his hands and head on the filthy floor and flipped himself over — a somersault worth a thousand words. 

Who’s really in control?

Although the somersault-as-tantrum was a new one for me, I think most of us can relate to similar failed attempts at toddler discipline. Many of us are operating in a no man’s land when it comes to dealing with our children’s difficult behavior. Spanking and yelling are out. “Consequences” are in. 

Interestingly, this approach to discipline is rooted in B.F. Skinner’s mid-20th-century idea that human behavior is determined by consequences and that bad behavior must be punished. Hence, we employ some of the old standbys, such as time outs and taking away toys or privileges.  

“But consequences have consequences,” writes Katherine Reynolds Lewis in her Mother Jones article, What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong

“Contemporary psychological studies suggest that, far from resolving children’s behavior problems, these standard disciplining methods often exacerbate them,” Lewis argues. “Teachers who aim to control students’ behavior — rather than helping them control it themselves — undermine the very elements that are essential for motivation: autonomy, a sense of competence and a capacity to relate to others.”

Beyond punishment  

So what’s a parent to do? The key, evidently, is to focus on problem solving instead of punishment. Laura Davis and Janis Keyser, in their book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, outline a variety of strategies you can use for “cooperative limit setting.” Here are a few of my favorites: 

  • Natural consequences: These teach children through a process of cause and effect. Perhaps your toddler resists taking his bath, throwing off the whole bedtime routine. The consequence? There’s time to read only one book, instead of the usual three. 
  • Giving information: Let’s say your toddler is approaching the oven, arms extended and ready to explore. Instead of simply hollering, “Don’t touch that!” give them some information that explains the “why” of the situation: “Don’t touch it, because it’s hot and you could get hurt.” 
  • Redirection: You discover your toddler ripping flowers out of the garden. Instead of losing it and giving her a time out, find an alternative activity: “I don’t want you to pull up those flowers, but you can pull out these weeds over here.” This approach shows you understand the impulse behind your child’s action, and lets you help her channel it in a more appropriate way. 

Worth the effort? 

I imagine this cooperative approach to discipline might seem like more trouble than it’s worth to some parents. But I think it’s important to take the long view here: We’re not trying to program rule-following robots; we’re trying to guide our children toward becoming thoughtful human beings who can solve their own problems. 

Davis and Keyser say it well: “When children have been helped to make decisions based on empathy, understanding and their own critical-thinking skills rather than just what the ‘rules’ say, they have a skill they can use in a multitude of different situations and carry with them for the rest of their lives.” 

Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to