Here are some ideas to help you guide your preschooler’s behaviour:
Preschoolers have short memories and are easily distracted. You might need to remind them about things several times. (Test this. Try saying, ‘I will give you a piece of chocolate tomorrow morning’ and see if your preschooler remembers.)
Consequences are used to enforce limits and reinforce rules when simple reminders about appropriate behaviour haven’t worked.
When you’re focused on catching your children being good, and using the other strategies described in this write-up, you’ll need to use consequences less. But there are times when a negative consequence for difficult behaviour is needed.
It really pays to put some thought into how and why you might use consequences. If you overuse negative consequences or use them badly or inconsistently, they can have surprising and unwanted effects.
Below we explain three types of consequences that you could consider adding to your parenting.
1. Natural consequences
Sometimes it’s best to let children experience the natural consequences of their own behaviour. When children experience the results of their behaviour, they can learn that their actions have consequences. They might learn to take responsibility for what they do.
Here are some examples of using natural consequences:
- If your child refuses to put on a coat, let him get cold.
- If your child won’t eat, let him feel hungry.
- If your child doesn’t complete his homework, let him fail the assignment.
- If your child breaks a rule on the sporting field, he’ll have to take the penalty.
These are important but hard lessons, and life is often a better and faster teacher than parents are. And you don’t have to be the unfair, bad guy. You can feel for them, but saying ‘I told you so’ puts you back in their bad books.
Sometimes you do need to step in to protect children from the natural consequences of behaviour. The consequence of dangerous behaviour could be serious injury, and the consequence of persistently avoiding schoolwork can be educational failure. Sometimes natural consequences can actually reward antisocial behaviour – for example, aggressive behaviour can be rewarded when a victim gives into a bully.
2. Related consequences
A ‘related consequence’ (sometimes called a ‘logical consequence’) is when parents impose a consequence that is related to the behaviour they wish to discourage. For example:
- If a child is mucking around and spills his drink, he must wipe it up.
- If a bike is left in the driveway, it gets put away for the rest of the afternoon.
- If children are fighting over a toy, the toy is put away for 10 minutes.
The advantage of related consequences is they get the child to think about the issue, they feel fairer, and they tend to work better than consequences that seen irrelevant. But it’s not always easy or possible to find a related consequence.
3. Losing a privilege
With this type of consequence, the child loses access to a favourite object or activity because of unacceptable behaviour. The ‘privilege’ is not necessarily related to the misbehavior. For example:
- A child who is not cooperating with his mother might lose the privilege of a lift to footy training: Footy skills training sessions consist of catch and pass, footwork, kicking, tackle technique and many other footy drills to develop you game.
- A child who misconduct with his father might lose fun time.
Time-out is another type of consequence. It involves having your child go to a place – a corner, chair or room – that is apart from interesting activities, and other people, for a short period of time. It can be used for particularly difficult behaviour, or occasions when you both are feeling very angry and you need to take a break from each other to calm down.
Tips for using consequences:
It is important to remember that if children clearly understand what is expected of them and you regularly encourage them for doing it, they are less likely to do things that require consequences.
There are some important factors to consider when implementing any form of consequence:
- Use consequences consistently:
Related consequences, loss of privileges or time-out as a last resort might be used when the child ignores reminders and breaks rules, but you should apply them in the same way and for the same kinds of behaviour every time. It’s very confusing for children if something they do earns a negative consequence today but did not do so yesterday.
- Apply negative consequences to all children
Apply negative consequences to all children in the family. Children will be upset if they see other children not being treated in the same way as them.
- Keep consequences short:
They don’t have to be harsh, mean or long to be effective. The advantage of keeping a consequence short is that you quickly give your child an opportunity to try again. For example, if the computer is turned off for 10 minutes because children are fighting over it, they will quickly have another opportunity to solve the problem in a different way. If it is turned off for the rest of the day, there are no more opportunities in the day for them to learn to manage the situation differently. Also, a long consequence can be worse for parents than children – a child deprived of his bike for a week is likely to get bored and cranky!
- It pays to implement consequences calmly and in a neutral tone. Try not to make it personal – instead of talking about a ‘bad child’, talk about the rule and the child’s behaviour. Getting very angry or frustrated makes the child more likely to think about how mad you are (which can be rather entertaining, scary or exciting) rather than about learning from the situation.
- Reserve consequences for children over three:
Children younger than this won’t really understand consequences, particularly if they don’t understand the connection between their actions and the outcomes of those actions. Consequences will just feel unfair to them.
- Wherever possible, explain consequences to the children ahead of time so they don’t come as a surprise. If you talk to the children about possible consequences, they’re less likely to be resentful and angry when they are implemented. Negotiating consequences ahead of time makes them more effective and easier to implement if they are ever needed.
- In most situations, warn your children before you implement the consequence. For example, ‘Guys, this yelling is just too loud for me! If you can’t work out what to do without screaming at each other, I will make you sit separately. Beware of the trap of repeated warnings or not following through. The exception to giving a warning before a consequence is where you have a well-established family rule. There might be important rules where a consequence will immediately follow the breaking of the rule.
- Timeliness is important. Consequences work better when they occur as soon as possible after the behaviour.
- On the other hand, it’s best not to impose a consequence immediately if you are feeling very angry. There is a danger that you might overreact and be too harsh. Instead, say something like, ‘I am feeling very angry at the moment. We will talk about this again in a couple of minutes when I am feeling calmer’.
Try these tips to encourage the behaviour you want in your child.
- Show your child how you feel:
Tell him honestly how his behaviour affects you. This will help him see her own feelings in yours, like a mirror. This is called empathy. By the age of three, children can show real empathy. So you might say, ‘I’m getting upset because there is so much noise I can’t talk on the phone’. When you start the sentence with ‘I’, it gives your child the chance to see things from your perspective.
- Catch her being ‘good’:
This simply means that when your child is behaving in a way you like, you can give her some positive feedback. For example, ‘Wow, you are playing so nicely. I really like the way you are keeping all the blocks on the table’. This works well than waiting for the blocks to come crashing to the floor before you take notice and react, ‘Hey, stop that’. This positive feedback is sometimes called ‘descriptive praise’. Try to say six positive comments (praise and encouragement) for every negative comment (criticisms and reprimands).The 6-1 ratio keeps things in balance. Remember that if children have a choice only between no attention or negative attention, they will seek out negative attention.
- Get down to your child’s level:
Kneeling or squatting down next to children is a very powerful tool for communicating positively with them. Getting close allows you to tune in to what they might be feeling or thinking. It also helps them focus on what you are saying or asking for. If you are close to your child and have his attention, there is no need to make him look at you.
- ‘I hear you:’
Active listening is another tool for helping young children cope with their emotions. They tend to get frustrated a lot, especially if they can’t express themselves well enough verbally. When you repeat back to them what you think they might be feeling, it helps to relieve some of their tension. It also makes them feel respected and comforted. It can diffuse many potential temper tantrums. Temper tantrums are common emotional and physical outbursts of screaming, kicking and crying in toddlers.
- Keep promises:
Stick to agreements. When you follow through on your promises, good or bad, your child learns to trust and respect you. So when you promise to go for a walk after she picks up her toys, make sure you have your walking shoes handy. When you say you will leave the library if she doesn’t stop running around, be prepared to leave straight away. No need to make a fuss about it – the more matter of fact, the better. This helps your child feel more secure, because it creates a consistent and predictable environment.
- Choose your battles:
Before you get involved in anything your child is doing – especially to say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ – ask yourself if it really matters. By keeping instructions, requests and negative feedback to a minimum, you create less opportunity for conflict and bad feelings. Rules are important, but use them only when it’s really important.
- Whining: be strong:
Kids don’t want to be annoying. By giving in when they’re whining for something, we train them to do it more – even if we don’t mean to. ‘No’ means ‘no’, not maybe, so don’t say it unless you mean it. If you say ‘no’ and then give in, children will be whining even more the next time, hoping to get lucky again.
- Keep it simple and positive:
If you can give clear instructions in simple terms, your child will know what is expected of him. (‘Please hold my hand when we cross the road.’) Stating things in a positive way gets their heads thinking in the right direction. For example, ‘Please shut the gate’ is better than ‘Don’t leave the gate open’.
- Responsibility and consequences:
As children get older, you can give them more responsibility for their own behaviour. You can also give them the chance to experience the natural consequences of that behaviour. You don’t have to be the bad guy all the time. For example, if your child forgot to put her lunch box in her bag, she will go hungry at lunch time. It is her hunger and her consequence. It won’t hurt her to go hungry just that one time. Sometimes, with the best intentions, we do so much for our children that we don’t allow them to learn for themselves. At other times you need to provide consequences for unacceptable or dangerous behaviour. For these times, it is best to ensure that you have explained the consequences and that your children have agreed to them in advance.
- Say it once and move on:
It is surprising how much your child is listening even though he might not have the social maturity to tell you. Nagging and criticising is boring for you and doesn’t work. Your child will just end up tuning you out and wonder why you get more upset. If you want to give him one last chance to cooperate, remind him of the consequences for not cooperating. Then start counting to three.
- Make your child feel important:
Children love it when they can contribute to the family. Start introducing some simple chores or things that she can do to play her own important part in helping the household. This will make her feel important and she’ll take pride in helping out. If you can give your child lots of practice doing a chore, she will get better at it and will keep trying harder. Safe chores help children feel responsible, build their self-esteem and help you out too.
- Prepare for challenging situations:
There are times when looking after your child and doing things you need to do will be tricky. If you think about these challenging situations in advance, you can plan around your child’s needs. Give him a five-minute warning before you need him to change activities. Talk to him about why you need his cooperation. Then he is prepared for what you expect.
- Maintain a sense of humour:
Another way of diffusing tension and possible conflict is to use humour and fun. You can pretend to become the menacing tickle monster or make animal noises. But humour at your child’s expense won’t help. Young children are easily hurt by parental ‘teasing’. Humour that has you both laughing is great.
- ‘I hear you:’
- Children do as you do:
Your child watches you to get clues on how to behave in the world. You’re his role model, so use your own behaviour to guide him. What you do is often much more important than what you say. If you want your child to say ‘please’, say it yourself. If you don’t want your child to raise her voice, speak quietly and gently yourself. If you want your child to say salam, as he enters home, you say it yourself. If you want him to read Quran regularly, you read it regularly. If you want him to become a practicing Muslim, you should become one.
- Show your child how you feel: