Often I am approached by parents who ask me the question “How do I choose consequences that work”. I believe that the consequences that parents choose are not nearly as important as the way in which they are delivered. Setting limits with clear rules, using respectful and supportive communication along with separating the child from their behavior are much more important than exactly following the child rearing strategies set out by the therapeutic community.
I often make this point by sharing a childhood story where my father didn’t tie the consequences directly to the incident. He didn’t ask me to process my feelings or understanding of the situation. He created a swift clear punishment and followed it up with positive reinforcement.
My father was an authoritative man. A tall, impressive military sergeant who commanded respect but also cared for me and those he led. When we stepped too far out of line, he would intervene. On this day, I was mad at my younger sister. I began to antagonize her to get even, then got frustrated and hit her. My dad calmly and with disappointment stated, “Bob, you hit your sister.”
I responded defensively and unapologetically, “It was her fault, she was in my stuff.” I knew that wouldn’t be enough to stop his support of her, so I continued “Why do you always take her side?”
My father simply countered calmly and with remorse, “I don’t think you want to be the kind of man that hits women.” I wanted to talk my way out of this incident, to blame her. I was angry, unremorseful and felt he was being unfair. For my father there was nothing to talk about. On this day, my father was not redirecting my behavior, he was handing out punishment. I wasn’t to be the kind of man who hit women. Period.
Dad went to the closet, got the field gear bag and said. “I have a job for you and this needs to be done before you play any video games.” He dumped a huge pile of muddy field combat boots on the porch. He went on to explain, “These need to be polished and set in a row. After you’re done, you can play your games. Come get me when you’re finished.
I was an army brat so I know how to shine a boot. This was a big job and it was going to keep me busy until after dinner. I knew my father would follow through. I wasn’t going to enjoy my evening without cooperating with the punishment. Yet I was proud and needed to rebel. So I did my punishment acting as if it had no impact on me. I kept hoping he would come to his senses and see that his arbitrary demand didn’t work. It wasn’t causing me to be remorseful or apologetic or seeing the errors of my ways. My father didn’t force me to do any of those things. He asked that the shoes were polished. Yet he wasn’t just punishing me, I would get to play my video games after it was done. I knew that this would be over soon, if I would just complete my task. So I polished and grumbled. I told myself, this wasn’t all my fault. I wasn’t apologizing for anything. And I kept on shining the shoes and replaying what had happened over and over in my mind. A few hours later covered with shoe polish I headed for the living room and the television so that I could begin my quest to save the Princess from King Cooper.
My father seeing that I had stopped stated with a nonjudgmental tone, “Oh are you done already?” He decided to pick his battles and not bring it to my attention that I hadn’t informed him that I had completed the job. “Yea,” I replied as I remembered that I was to get him when I was finished. “Let’s go see em.” Dad commanded with a positive optimistic tone. I scrambled to show him the boots, hoping that nothing would get in the way of my rejoining my video games.
As we looked at the boots all standing in a row, my Dad picked out a couple pairs. He praised me for how they looked. Showing them to me and explaining how I had done a good job he stated, “This is what we are looking for.” After showing me what I had done properly, he also picked two pair of boots and said “Now these boots will get you a couple more miles to run in physical training” he compared the quality of my work and demonstrated how to make an improvement before asking me to improve my work on the last pair. The entire interaction was positive and there was no discussion of what I had done wrong or the remorse I should be feeling. In fact I actually ended up with more praise from the punishment than any actual reprimand.
So the basic question is…… why as a counselor do I believe that this was a successful parenting technique that helped me to learn anything what so ever?
Why This Consequence Worked
My father identified what I had done wrong without being overly harsh or judgmental when he said “Bob you hit your sister.” When my father confronted me and delivered the punishment, he was disappointed rather than anger or shaming. Although I was not to be the kind of man that hit women, his disappointment was with my actions rather than with me as a person. He was sad and remorseful that he found it necessary to take action. When I attempted to argue, rather than allow me to do so or insisting that I accept “blame,” he separated who I was from my behavior. There was no attempt to call me an abuser or the meanest monster of a brother. There simply was a mistake that needed to be corrected.
My father also gave me room to be strong willed and somewhat defiant without escalating the situation. He focused his request on completing the assigned task and made it clear that once I was done I could return to doing things that I enjoyed. He did not react when I showed no remorse, was angry or acted like the punishment didn’t both me. This lack of concern about my attitude allowed us to stay focused on how I treat my sister and women rather than creating a conflict over how I accepted the consequences.
I was motivated to move forward with shining the shoes because I believed that he would follow through and because I knew that I could enjoy my video games once I was done. He showed no concern with whether or not shining the shoes frustrated me or not. His expectations were clear. Shine the boots. I had no question about what was expected and I knew that I would get what I wanted as soon as I completed the task. I also had several hours to focus on what I had done.
When I didn’t check in with him after I was done, he didn’t focus on my mistake. He simply stated “Oh, are you done already?” and went to the boots to inspect them. At this point he was able to decrease my frustration with his punishment by focusing on my success. I had done a good job of polishing the boots. By focusing on the quality of the job I had done, he was able to reinforce that he believed in me, reduce the frustration between us, and give praise for a job well done. By keeping it simple, we both knew that I understood what I had done wrong. He didn’t need to make sure that I understood why I had been disciplined. He didn’t embarrass or shame me by making sure that I described my indiscretion with the appropriate remorse or explanation what I had learned. There was no need from me to get defensive or resent our final interactions because they were all positive reinforcement of a job well done rather than lessons learned.
Sometimes parents forget that the way we respond to a problem is often more important than choosing the perfect consequence for our children. When we model respectful accurate supportive communication, our actions are teaching our children just as much as our response to the problematic behavior. When we show them we love them and not their behavior, we can allow them to respond less than perfectly without repercussions. When we retain a positive connection with our children throughout, we have reinforced what we are teaching with a positive foundation that enhances compliance and allows cooperation.
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