Years ago, I huddled around a kitchen table with two frazzled, exhausted parents and their three kids. The notebook page in front of us listed 20 undesirable behaviors on one side and corresponding consequences on the other.

On a separate piece of paper, we created a range of rewards – from small trinkets to large family outings.

It was an exhausting process, but once it was complete, we felt proud of the work we accomplished.

The first week went according to plan. Kids were earning rewards, avoiding consequences, and the house was relatively calm.

But by the second week, the kids found the loopholes. Rewards were expected and consequences were next to impossible to enforce. Old habits returned and the house fell back into chaos.

The reward/consequence mindset was all the rage in parenting circles in those days. (And for many parents, this is still the parenting strategy of choice.)

Unfortunately, in my experience, reward/consequence charts rarely create long-term change.

Let’s rethink parent-created consequences

Actions have consequences. There’s no question. (Text while walking? Hit your head on a tree branch. Ouch!)

But at some point, these natural consequences were deemed ineffective. Instead, parents were expected to create an additional consequence to make sure their child “really learned their lesson.”

This pressure to create consequences put many parents in a tailspin:

“My child just hit a kid at the playground, what’s the best consequence?”

“My kid refuses to do his homework, what consequence would fit?”

Other parents gladly join in creating all sorts of consequences ranging from silly to shameful.

Attempts to implement this consequence would be met with resistance. This resistance ultimately leads to a power struggle.

Exasperated, parents are left wondering, “NOW what consequence should I use?!”

Here’s the thing:

…your child will be stuck in the exact same spot. Experiencing the exact same challenges. And having the exact same arguments with you.

Ugh.

Tired of trying to find the “perfect” consequence for your child? Try this instead!

Instead of finding the “perfect” consequence, focus on these things

Work on your own stuff first

Before you tell your kids to “calm down” make sure you know how to keep yourself grounded in emotional situations. Learn about your triggers and know what helps you stay present, even when your kids are having a tough time.

Build a strong connection

Without a firm relationship with you, no amount of punishment or grounding is going to make a difference. This might mean temporarily setting aside some concerns until you and your child have repaired the relationship.

Empathize

Natural consequences can be sad, difficult, exhausting, or frustrating. Instead of brushing these feelings aside (or adding consequences), sit with your child in their experience. Let them know that you understand their pain. Resist the urge to say “I told you so!” or “Duh! What did you think would happen!?”

Be curious

Many things impact your child’s behavior – environmental, sensory, learning, social, emotional, etc. Identifying lacking skills and unmet needs may be the first step toward finding an effective solution.

Teach

Provide opportunities for your child to grow into their new expectations. Sometimes, you are your child’s best teacher, other times, your child needs the support of others (Mental Health Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Learning Specialists, etc.) to be successful with a new skill.

Bonus step

Explore your own thoughts and feelings around consequences.

The use of consequences can include some hidden “baggage” for many parents. Rather than ignoring these nagging voices inside, give yourself permission to listen, explore, and challenge some of the patterns and thoughts you have around parent-created consequences.

  • Why is “giving a consequence” important to you?
  • How do you feel when you give a consequence? How do you feel when you don’t give a consequence?
  • How were consequences used when you were a child? How does that compare to what you are doing today?
  • In what ways have consequences been effective? In what ways have they been ineffective?
  • How do your friends or your community use consequences?
  • What are your fears or questions about giving up parent-created consequences?
  • How would you like to use consequences in your family?

Ready to parent without “perfect” consequences?

Almost 15 years later, I have scrapped reward/consequence charts completely. I no longer use this system with families during parent coaching sessions.

Instead, we look for breaks in connection. We are curious and empathetic to the struggles and challenges. And we create systems, provide support, guidance, and encouragement to our kids as they grow into new expectations.

And guess what?

It’s working.

Rather than feeling stuck, parents are finding a renewed relationship with their kids. They are breaking generational patterns of parenting with shame and guilt and replacing them with empathy and problem-solving.

It may not be as quick as giving a timeout or swiftly removing an Xbox controller, but you will see long-term benefits that last well beyond the immediate moment.