A very different approach!
Here’s a new spin on the notion of “consequences,” a term familiar to every parent. But rather than looking at the negative outcome of behavioral choices your children make, let’s examine a more positive alternative, a shift in focus that is far more effective in generating the kinds of behaviors you want—and in a home environment you and your kids can enjoy.
Over the years, one of the biggest challenges I have faced in my work involves convincing parents of the importance of switching our emphasis from negative consequences to positive outcomes. The resistance and suspicion I’ve encountered probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Generally speaking, in terms of children’s behavior, the word consequence itself seems to automatically signal something negative or punitive. So much so that thinking of the word in a positive context somehow just doesn’t feel natural.
Nearly all discipline models emphasize negative outcomes for negative behavior, a nearly universal, long-standing, and familiar response to parents’ concerns about “what do I do when my child misbehaves?” These models have conditioned us to think of a child’s negative behavior as something that demands a negative parental response, rooted in the notion that some form of deprivation, discomfort, embarrassment, or even physical pain is the best (or only) way to get kids to change their behavior. Fortunately, we know this simply isn’t true.
Imagine achieving the same outcomes— inspiring desirable, cooperative, respectful, and responsible behaviors from your kids— without depending on threats, fear, anger, frustration, disappointment, or conditional approval. Because there is another way, an approach that is not only more effective, but also less likely to escalate negative behavior or cause resentment, and is therefore less stressful to all concerned. The approach is actually quite simple. It involves shifting our emphasis from the negative outcomes of your kids doing something you don’t want (or not doing something you’ve asked them to do) to the positive outcomes of positive behaviors, language, tone, and attitude.
The emphasis on the negative outcome (“If you don’t get the car in by ten, you can’t have it for a month.”) is so pervasive and well-ingrained that it’s easy to forget that we almost always have a positive consequence available as well (“If you get home safely by ten, you can have it again next weekend.”) Yet there are some clear benefits to stressing positive outcomes— what the kids get or get to do when they do what you ask.
One of the best things about shifting your emphasis to positive outcomes is that it allows you to require certain behaviors or a certain amount of work from your kids in order for them to earn, or continue to enjoy, these benefits or privileges. In a culture in which far too many kids are growing up with an unnerving sense of entitlement and without limits or accountability, this is not a bad thing. And it’s easier to get kids to respect limits and buy into a sense of accountability when offered outcomes they perceive as positive and meaningful.
This is where the whole bribery argument comes up, so let me assure you that there is no such thing as unmotivated behavior. Every decision your kids make is influenced by an anticipated outcome, and the same is true for adults, including you and me. We either choose the option that offers us the most valuable or meaningful benefit at that moment (money, privileges, a sense of power, toys or some desirable tangible outcome, a sense of accomplishment, comfort, acceptance, or even a feeling of self-righteousness, for example) or we choose the option that protects us from some form of loss (dignity, belonging, status, privilege or possession, freedom, or emotional or physical safety, for example).
So it really comes down to whether we’re going to use positive bribes— including work-related options and earned privileges— in place of the negative ones on which we currently depend. We connect desired behavior to consequences one way or the other, so why not focus on the good stuff? Threatening to not make dinner if the counters aren’t cleared by 5:00 is just as much a “bribe” as offering to cook as long as the counters are clean on time. Either way, choice connects to outcome. Our orientation to the choices we offer, positive or negative, has a huge impact on the quality of the energy in the home environment, and gives you a great deal of leverage and authority without compromising your kids’ need for autonomy and dignity, and without creating a great deal of stress on the relationship.
If you’re still not sold, consider this: Simply stating a contingency as a promise (as opposed to a threat), transfers the responsibility for your kids getting what they want where it belongs— on them. Besides, a reward-orientated environment that emphasizes the payoff for cooperation (rather than punishment for non-compliance) is not only a cornerstone of win-win household, but it’s also a lot easier to manage and generally a whole lot more fun. Even if you have always depended on your kids’ fear of punishment or disapproval, it’s not likely to very take long for even the most cynical, well-defended kids to start seeing your home as a place where “good things happen when…” And therein lies the incentive to respect curfew, complete chores, come to the table the first time you call, or get ready for bed on time.
Once you get comfortable with the idea of positive consequences, it’s time to start thinking of what you can offer. Start with what you know your kids want and enjoy, whether it’s time outside, access to media or entertainment, or a ride to the mall. But also start thinking about some of the things you may never have thought of as privileges before, things like having time to hear a story before bed (as long as they’re in pajamas by 8:00), getting their clothes washed (as long as the clothes are in the hamper by Saturday morning at 9:00), or being able to continue having a discussion with you (as long as they aren’t yelling).
Positive outcomes could also include things like getting out of one of the chores on the list as long as the other four are done by a certain time. Be sure that privileges are earned and practiced within clearly-defined limits. And keep in mind that simply being able to make certain decisions about things like deciding which of two chores to do first or where and how (or even when) they want to do homework (as long as the homework is getting done).
Even in cases when your children fail to earn a privilege— or lose a privilege because they aren’t cooperating within previously prescribed limits— a punitive or shaming response is not necessary. It’s perfectly reasonable to withdraw or withhold a desired outcome until the kids’ behavior changes. This is where you’ll find yourself repeating “magic” sentences like, “We’ll try again tomorrow (or next week)” so you can avoid attacking, blaming, or labeling the misbehavior or lapse. The lack of access to the positive teaches more than anything you could possibly say— as will earning back privileges according to their behavior. Because in a win-win household, kids will presumably have lots of opportunities to refine the behaviors and strategies necessary for gaining access to these positive outcomes until they eventually get it right.
The material in this section was inspired by (and in part, adapted from) chapter 12, “Create a Win-Win Classroom,” from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher, by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2010, Corwin Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA. You can find more information on creating positive, win-win relationships with your children (and others in The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting (also Listas Para Padres) and Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line.