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Parenting with Dr. Dave: Teaching Responsibility
Dr. David Botkin, Director of Student Services

In my last blog, I wrote about a parenting approach I called Emotionally Supportive/Behaviorally Firm, in which parents strive to support their child’s feelings while continuing to hold their child accountable for transgressions of rules and other misbehaviors. So why is holding a child accountable, a phrase we hear so often, important? It is important because that process teaches personal responsibility. We can think of responsible behavior as intentional behavior made with a full appreciation of consequences. Holding a child accountable really means ensuring that the child’s experience is such that the consequences are explicit and the child can learn from them. 

I’m often asked about specific questions regarding strategies for holding children accountable such as, “What works better, punishments or rewards?” Or, “Does grounding work or is it better to take away electronics for misbehavior?” In this blog, we will explore those issues.

Rewards vs. Punishments

I’m not a fan of punishment. Punishment veers awfully close to revenge. You made me mad (or did something bad), so I will do something to cause you some suffering. While many children respond positively and quickly to simple punishments, a significant group, those more innately willful or defiant, will not. This latter group will face so much punishment that it can have a negative impact on self-image. And, this group may also learn to model the negativity and project it toward others. In simpler words, when you yell at some children, they learn to yell back. 

And honestly, I’m not a fan of rewards, either. Of course, parents should acknowledge and celebrate their children’s accomplishments while holding them in high regard. Children should feel unconditionally loved and accepted. But, reward as a means of behavioral management sets up the wrong expectation, namely, that one should behave in order to receive an external reward for doing so. Instead, we would like to teach our children to behave well because of the intrinsic value of good behavior itself. Additionally, rewards tend to be inflationary even when they work. Maintaining behavioral control through rewards will require new and bigger rewards as the children satiate to the old ones. 

Natural Consequences

So, what strategy is best for teaching children to consider the consequences of their behavior? To answer that, let’s first look at what keeps us, the adults, behaving responsibly. I believe that while much of our behavior is habitual, well-worn grooves from habit and repetition, the habits were developed through experiences (personal or vicarious) of the natural consequences that occur as behavioral choices are made. If it’s cold outside, I have learned to take a jacket as I prefer not to shiver. I’m nice to my neighbor as I have experienced when I am nice to others, they are more likely to be nice to me. I drive as carefully as I can as I have learned through the experiences of others that the consequences can be catastrophic. 

Children can also learn natural consequences without the need for any parental intervention. Every time a child skins her knee or upsets a friend, learning is taking place. Sometimes parental intervention can even get in the way of the message of the natural consequence. I was asked by a mother once what she should do about her son getting kicked off the football team for misbehavior in the locker room. “Nothing,” I replied. She said, “Well shouldn’t there be a consequence for what he’s done?” “There is,” I said. “He’s been kicked off the football team. Making it about your disappointment will just cloud the message, which is very clear--if you misbehave in the locker room then you are off the team.” 

Logical Consequences

But often the natural consequence is either not understood by the child or too severe for us to accept. We would not let a nine-year-old quit school because he cannot appreciate the negative and irreparable consequences of such a poor choice. And we would not let a child ride her bike dangerously and let her learn from the natural consequence of getting hit by a car. In those cases, we do what the state does with a drunk driver, which is to enforce the rule if you can’t drive safely, then we will not let you drive. The state doesn’t wait for the drunk driver to hurt someone. But the response is logical, not simply an arbitrary punishment. If the state were to cut off your electricity for drunk driving that would constitute an arbitrary punishment. So, the logical consequence to the child who rides her bike dangerously is to take away her bike riding privilege, not to send her to bed early.

The logical consequence takes the form of a contingency. If you do X, then I will do Y, with the connection between X and Y being logical. Here are several examples:

  • If I have to clean up your toys, then you won’t be allowed to play with those until next week.
  • If you behave badly when your friend visits, then we won’t invite her over for a month.
  • If you don’t speak to me appropriately, then I won’t respond to you until you do.
  • If you behave aggressively toward another, you will be required to apologize and make amends. 
  • If you leave the house and break the rules, then you will not leave the house for two days. 
  • If you break the rules regarding the use of electronics, then your access to your electronics will be suspended.

Of course, these examples would be modified depending upon the age of the child, the severity of the offense, and other characteristics of the context, but generally, I prefer less harsh and easy to enforce consequences because they can be applied more consistently. Harsher consequences tend to be preceded by many warnings which risks teaching children to pay attention to how far they can go before “you mean it.” And if enforcing a consequence requires much work, then again, consistency will diminish. 

The Power of Logical Consequences

There are two primary advantages to logical consequences over illogical punishments. The first is that the child’s focus tends to be on his or her own behavior rather than on the seemingly random and unfair actions of the punisher. When I was in graduate school over 40 years ago, I returned to my basement apartment one day to discover that my electricity had been shut off. “Darn,” I thought, “I knew I should have paid attention to that second notice.” Had I received a notice that my driver’s license had been suspended for failure to pay my electric bill, I would have focused on the capricious and vindictive nature of the electric company. We want our children to focus on their choices, not ours, and logical consequences help.

The logical consequence is designed to teach a contingency, not make a child feel bad for the mistake. He may feel bad, and we can live with that, but the intention is to teach him to pay attention to rules and outcomes. Thus, the second and huge advantage over punishment is that we can support the child’s feelings as we enforce the logical consequence. With a punishment designed to make the child feel bad, how can a parent then try to help them through the bad feeling? But a parent can easily say, “You are generally a very good brother to your sister and I know you love her a lot and she appreciates you, but what you said to her this morning was hurtful. So, I’d like you to apologize and make it up to her.” In that way, we are teaching responsibility while protecting the brother’s sense of self. What could be better!

About the Author

David Botkin

David Botkin

Director of Student Services

  • child development
  • parenting

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