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Combining Choice and Consequences in Early Childhood

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Parents should come up with consequences in advance of misbehavior whenever possible. Parents who try to come up with consequences in the heat of the moment often end up blurting out unworkable, unreasonable or unenforceable consequences with limited deterrent effect. For example, if Grandma gets frustrated at Ken's temper tantrum while at the grocery store, she could blurt out, "You can never come to the grocery store with me ever again!" This threat might be fine with Ken, who doesn't like going to the store anyway. However, if Grandma has a steady appointment to babysit Ken each week, it will also make her life more difficult if she can now never again take Ken with her while shopping. She may give in after the second week of making special arrangements. Giving in will cancel the power of the consequence.

Part of what makes Grandma's consequence for Ken difficult for her to enforce is that it never ends; it goes on forever. This duration of this consequence is too long, not only because it inconveniences Grandma, but also because small children like Ken don't have a good conception of large numbers like "forever". Grandma would be better off telling Ken he cannot go to the grocery store with her next week, rather than ever again. Not only is this shorter consequence easier for Grandma to stick to, but it will actually work better because "next week" is a concept that a child of Ken's age can understand. Shorter consequences also have the benefit of giving kids the opportunity for a "do-over" in which they can show they've learned the lesson.

Think back to Joy and her dolls for a moment. Dad might have punished Joy by removing her dolls for an entire week after she refused to pick them up. However, for a 7 year old girl, an entire week is too long of a consequence to be optimally effective. By the time she gets her dolls back, she'll have forgotten why she lost them in the first place! However, if isn't allowed to play with her dolls for only one night, she'll be more likely to remember the reason for the consequence. In addition, if she fails to pick them up again, there's still room to increase the consequence another step the next time, such as taking the dolls away for 2 or 3 days.

Combining Choice and Consequences

Parents can combine discipline techniques in order to better teach their children how to behave appropriately. A particularly good combination of discipline techniques occurs when the choice technique is combined with the process of setting consequences on children's behavior. For example, when Billy begins to tantrum at bedtime, Dad can combine choice and consequences by saying "Billy, EITHER you can get up off the floor right now, brush your teeth, and get into bed, OR you can keep crying on the floor as long as you want. But, we won't have time to read tonight, and you'll have to go to bed one minute earlier tomorrow night for every minute you're late to bed tonight. It's your choice." When Dad stops talking after giving that choice and pretends to ignore Billy, Billy will have to make a tough choice. Either he'll continue tantruming, or he'll get to read his nighttime story. If Dad continues to ignore Billy's tantruming and refuses to give Billy the negative attention that he wants, Billy will realize throwing a fit won't get him anywhere.

Parents should avoid going into long-winded speeches because kids generally aren't listening, and these speeches will only increase tantrums and misbehavior. In the above situation with Billy and his father, the most repetition the father should offer Billy (should he not respond immediately) is to perhaps briefly repeat Billy's choice or to simply repeat, "It's your choice." The later short reminder puts the ownership of the choice and the behavior on the child. And, as repeated before, it's important that parents follow through with the consequence. If it took Billy ten minutes to calm down that night, Dad should start getting him ready for bed ten minutes earlier the next night.

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